Food recalls seem to be occurring more and more often lately, as many as 900 this year alone!
The latest recalls involve foods most of us eat, such as cereal and salad greens.
Unfortunately, the consequence of contamination of our food supply is grave. There are hundreds of people being sickened, hospitalized and even dying. Tons of food are being wasted by restaurants, grocers, farmers, and consumers.
In 2017, it is estimated that 21 million pounds of food were trashed. Millions of dollars are being spent, not only for healthcare but also to find and combat the problem.
Not only does it impact health and increase food waste, but costs smaller farmers and producers millions they can’t afford to lose when their food is not impacted but is still caught up in recalls.
Technology innovations can help us both prevent and track outbreaks of deadly foodborne illnesses for everyone’s safety.
Detective Foodsafe® keeps her finger on the pulse of food safety and innovations to prevent becoming its next victim so she can teach us how to stay safe.
Here are some new ways technology can help us outsmart the spread of pathogens.
Machine Learning Program Outsmarts Foodborne Illness
Google has found a way to identify potential sources of foodborne illness outbreaks arising from eating in restaurants. They claim they can spot problems before regular inspections or consumer complaints trigger recognition of an issue.
By identifying a source of contaminated food before a large number of people have a chance to consume the harmful foods, the time between awareness and correction is reduced. This means fewer people will become ill.
Google has developed a machine-learning model that finds people who search for both symptom management information, such as ‘diarrhea’ or ‘stomach cramps,’ and similar restaurants. This can isolate a list of potential locations of concern using online data for epidemiology.
The Google model then informs local health departments of possible sources of foodborne illness. Inspectors are then sent to these locations without prior knowledge of a problem to complete their usual inspections.
In the pilot study, 71 restaurants were targeted and 52.1% of those were found to have violations following the inspection, compared to 39.4% when the inspection was triggered by consumer complaints.
Some cities are already using social media mining tools to identify restaurant violators for the purpose of preventing foodborne illness.
It is interesting to note that in 38% of those restaurant inspections prompted by the Google model, it was not the last restaurant visit that caused the illness as previously thought, since it could take 48 hours or more for symptoms to appear. This means that people who self-reported restaurant complaints may have been accusing the wrong location of contamination.
Blockchain Speeds Identification
The recent outbreak of E. coli contamination in romaine lettuce originating from Yuma, Arizona pointed to the difficulty that officials had finding the source. They were tasked to track all supply chains, growers, packers and transportation gaps that could have caused the contamination.
What they found is that following a paper trail can be unsuccessful when some of the paper is missing. This failure in the process resulted in more people becoming ill. In the case of the romaine contamination, some people died.
Using blockchain technology would speed the detection process through suppliers and growers vastly – some say to the speed of thought.
What is blockchain technology? It is a record tracking process initially used with bitcoin that encrypts data points that they can then be securely shared. Once added to a central database, no one can change the data and it becomes quickly searchable and verifiable.
At this time, there is no clear path of our food supply from farm to fork. This is a significant problem when trying to identify the source of foodborne pathogen in our foods. It currently is a slow process checking each piece of the puzzle, with no common database storing all the records.
Walmart has been testing a blockchain system that was able to track back a supply of mangoes in 2.2 seconds compared to more than six and a half days using the current paper system.
Detective Foodsafe agrees that there is no doubt that tech improvement can save lives.
Labeling Foods for Transparency
Following the recent outbreak of E. coli contaminated romaine lettuce, the growing and transporting origins of which were extremely difficult to locate, the FDA and CDC instituted voluntary labeling regulations for growers.
The new regulation states that any lettuce coming into the market should be labeled with harvest location and date of harvest.
New labels will help with a food recall investigation to trace back potential sources of contamination. Assurances have been made that this labeling requirement will continue into the future.
Growers, processors, distributors, and retail sellers are being asked to label all wrapped and individually sold romaine with the information to help during an investigation and to guide consumers during a recall, hopefully avoiding waste of perfectly good food.
Government agencies that work to protect our food supply continue to use tracking technology to trace romaine through the growing process and supply chain. Improving how data is captured at each supply point is the goal to help quickly identify contaminated food. Consumers and growers can look forward to this initiative spreading to other leafy greens such as spinach in the near future.
Technology is poised to improve the safety of our food supply if we use it to our benefit.
Labeling, blockchain, and machine learning data mining can help us today with more technology innovations on the horizon to help keep our food safe.
Detective Foodsafe will be on the case to watch how technology helps act swiftly to protect all of us from food poisoning across the food chain, prevent food waste, and hopefully prevent contamination from occurring in the first place.
This is definitely technology innovation for the health of it!