Waiter, there’s a chip in my soup!

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 14 Jul 2015

By Lee Yu Kit

We generally don’t associate technology with food. They seem inherently incompatible. Technology is cold, metallic and digital. And food is – well, food!

It is comforting, organic, nourishing and something to be looked forward to.  And yet, invisible as it may be, the use of technology in food may be more pervasive that you think.

It also plays a big part in the modern food chain, from tracking inventories to supply chain management.  
How do you know where the food’s from, and where it’s been?

One such technology, called “food traceability”, refers to the ability to trace the pathways that food takes before landing in the supermarket shelf, or on your plate.  

Technology has advanced to the point where a piece of food can be traced right back to its origins.  What the industry call “Farm to Fork”.

Often this involves the use of RFID tags or barcodes to track the progress of food through the supply chain.

Food traceability can be useful in various cases. For example, the source of food-borne disease outbreaks can be traced and isolated quickly. The ability to do this has dramatic impact on social and economic costs.

You may remember a case from 2011 where more than 50 people died and about 4,000 were sickened following an E. coli bacteria outbreak in Germany.

It took public health officials 60 days and thousands of case reports before the cause of the outbreak was identified.  

The domino effect was felt throughout the European Union (EU). Russia banned food imports from the EU. Cucumbers from Spain were wrongly blamed.

The source of the outbreak was finally identified as contaminated sprouts from a farm in Germany.

About 3,000 people die from contaminated food each year in the US alone. Recently, grocery stores in the US and Canada were forced to remove spinach from the shelves.

The vegetable was suspected to be contaminated with Listeria, which can cause listeriosis, a serious and sometimes deadly infection.

Outbreaks of food-borne diseases can be costly, both in economic and social terms. The right technology can help prevent food borne outbreaks.

Scientists from IBM Research made a breakthrough with smart-analytics system that can parse through data gathered from public health departments and food retailers to track and predict contamination in the food supply.

Once an outbreak occurs, the IBM tool can identify contaminated products using as few as 10 outbreak case reports.

Employing algorithms, visualisation and statistical techniques, the system sorts through date and location data on billions of products in the food supply.

Using predictive analytics based on location, content and context, the public health departments can  speed up the course of action to control outbreaks.

To demonstrate the IBM tool’s effectiveness, researchers worked with the Department of Biological Safety of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

They simulated 60,000 outbreaks of food-borne disease across 600 products using real-world food sales data from Germany.

The scientists were able to identify the contaminated product with 80% accuracy using fewer than 20 clinical cases.

SAFE TO EAT: Food-related health problems can be reduced with the help of tech.
Another example may be in quality assurance. If the product is premium meat, how can the producer be sure that a lower-grade, inferior product has not been substituted and sold under its brand name?  

Food traceability can assure the buyer of the origins of the product, thereby ensuring the authenticity and justifying the price premium.

The tracking of food items over periods of time can result in large data stores.

Further analysis of the collected data can yield extra benefits such as streamlining the supply chain and understanding historical patterns of demand and supply.

Such tracking is useful during festive periods as it help suppliers anticipate demand and prepare accordingly.  

These are two examples of where food and technology intersect. The next time you shop at a market, bear in mind that there may well have been some technology involved in bringing the item to the shelf.  

Lee Yu Kit is the chief technology officer of IBM Malaysia Sdn Bhd.

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