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IBM, Mars Launch New Data-Driven Effort to Advance Global Food Safety

Scientists from IBM Research and Mars have established a new collaborative food safety platform aimed at leveraging advances in genomics to further the understanding of what makes food safe.

The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain will conduct the largest-ever metagenomics study to categorize and understand microorganisms and the factors that influence their activity in a normal, safe factory environment. IBM and Mars say this work could be extended into the larger context of the food supply chain — from farm to fork — and lead to new insights into how microorganisms interact within a factory ecology and be better-controlled by new data and science-driven practices.

As a first step, the consortium’s scientists will investigate the genetic fingerprints of living organisms such as bacteria, fungi or viruses and how they grow in different environments, including countertops, factories and raw materials. This data will be used to further investigate how bacteria interact, which could result in completely new ways to view supply chain food safety management.

The consortium’s research will initially focus on select raw materials and factory environments but will ultimately extend up and down the entire food supply chain and include applications for farmers.

Understanding soil microorganisms, for example, will be crucial to helping farmers learn how to protect their plants from pathogens while ensuring healthy growth and nutrient uptake.

The first data samples will be gathered at Mars-owned production facilities, while IBM’s genomics, healthcare and analytics experts will utilize IBM’s Accelerated Discovery THINKLab, a collaborative research environment, for the large-scale computational and data requirements of this initiative. Beyond the research, data and findings will be presented in a systematic way to enable affordable and widespread use of these testing techniques.

Although many food companies already have rigorous processes in place to ensure food safety risks are managed appropriately, IBM and Mars say this new application of genomics will enable an in-depth understanding and categorization of microorganisms on a much bigger scale than has previously been possible.

“Genome sequencing serves as a new kind of microscope — one that uses data to peer deeply into our natural environment to uncover insights that were previously unknowable,” said Jeff Welser, Vice President and Lab Director, IBM Research - Almaden. “By mining insights from genomic data, we’re seeking to understand how to identify, interpret and ultimately create healthy and protective microbial management systems within the food supply chain.”

Protecting the global food supply is a major public health challenge. In the U.S. alone, one in six people are affected by food-borne diseases each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and $9 billion in medical costs. Another $75 billion worth of contaminated food is recalled and discarded annually. As the food supply chain becomes more global and complex, new approaches that use genetic data to better understand and improve food safety could provide unparalleled insight and understanding of the total supply chain.

A poll released late last year found that Americans are willing to spend an average of 31 percent more per week on grocery food produced safely and responsibly. Earlier in 2014, a Cone Communications survey found that Americans are willing to sacrifice variety and dollars in order to eat more consciously. Nearly nine-out-of-10 Americans (89 percent) said they consider where a product is produced when making food-purchasing decisions, and two-thirds (66 percent) would pay more for food that is produced close to home.


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