Food Safety Testing with a New Twist in the Works from IBM

Big-data computer company IBM is working on an innovative project that may have a big role in making the food supply safer in the future. The computer behemoth has partnered with the Mars food company to begin testing ingredients coming into on of the company’s plants.

What’s the new twist? IBM will be sequencing the genetics of the microbiome (yes, the bacteria!) of the meats and other ingredients that go into the Mars products. By sequencing a large number of each ingredient’s normal microbiome, IBM believes that it will become easier to detect when something unusual shows up there. In other words, they won’t be testing for the presence of specific microbes, but rather for what’s normally there. Current tests can return negative results when there is some new or unexpected microbe that somehow makes its way into the food supply.

An informative article on the Forbes website details the approach:

The goal—at once futuristic and a little icky—is to track food across the sprawling, global supply chain by sequencing the DNA of the microorganisms that live on it.

Just like our bodies, our food has thousands of these tiny hitchhikers, the vast majority harmless, making up what’s known as a “microbiome.” According to lead researcher Jeff Welser, conditions as diverse as soil and processing methods all influence a food’s microbiome, making the collective DNA of its microorganisms a detailed and unique record of its path to your plate.

To explain how microbiome testing could improve on current food safety standards, Welser points to the appearance of melamine in Chinese food products in 2008. The problem initially went undetected because, he says, no one was specifically testing for melamine. But a microbiome-based test could detect any shift away from a ‘normal’ baseline, because anything from tampered ingredients to unsafe handling would change a food’s microorganism profile.

Welser points out that most current food safety tests come back negative—which is great, but doesn’t provide a lot of bang for the testing buck. Microbiome testing wouldn’t just improve existing standards, it would also produce a data set with many other applications—something like a Google Analytics for food production.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” he asks, “If every test I did taught me something?”

Microbiome DNA testing could help producers track which healthy microbiomes help meats, fruits, and vegetables stay fresh longer on store shelves. That data could then be used to tailor farming or processing globally to promote microbiomes with preservative properties.

“The other thing you get for free on this,” Welser continues, “Is a really easy and clear way to stop food fraud.” For instance, testing fish would confirm that it’s the species a supplier claims it to be.

You can read more about this innovative new approach to using big data for food testing in the excellent article on the Forbes website.

Source: – “Your Food’s Bacteria is a Big Data Gold Mine”

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