The Science of Food Safety: Mars and IBM team up for DNA Sequencing Study

In an attempt to improve food safety, Mars and IBM are teaming up for a DNA sequencing project, to study how supply chains can affect the food we eat.
February 5, 2015

Recent evidence suggests that Australia experiences approximately 5.4 million instances of food poisoning every year. More than 1.2 million doctors’ appointments are made in relation to food poisoning.

Over 300,000 prescriptions are issued on an annual basis to treat the effects of food borne illnesses. Unfortunately, despite the statistics, it seems as though food safety has not improved over the last decade. In fact, the number of Australians to experience sickness because of food has shifted upwards by almost 80% in the last ten years.

Fortunately, there are some global companies taking steps towards championing the importance of food safety. In an attempt to help reduce contamination and foodborne illnesses, Mars and IBM Research are teaming up for a DNA sequencing project, to study how supply chains can affect the food we eat. Explicitly, the combo will be taking a detailed look at microorganisms, with the hope to reduce the millions of dollars that are lost by the Australian economy every year, because of foodborne illness and medical costs.

The Threat of Foodborne Illnesses

Issues with food safety affect almost every industry from agriculture and hospitality to retail and healthcare. However, despite its impact, we still don’t fully understand what is at the centre of these problems. Though a number of companies have begun to test rigorously along the food chain, all the way from the soil in which products were grown to the moment when they end up on a plate – not a lot has been done from an “information technology standpoint”.

According to IBM, the research will focus primarily on the genetic details of various living organisms, including viruses, fungi and bacteria, so that scientists may better understand how they thrive in different environments including factories, kitchen worktops and more. By discovering more about how bacteria interact, the hope is that food safety management practices can be improved throughout Australia and the world. According to Jeff Welser, a lab director from the research centre in San Jose, “A small problem in one place can travel quickly.”

The Science Behind the Testing

In order to better understand the details of microbiomes, and how food safety threats arise, IBM and Mars will be studying the "microbial ecology" of foods and the environments in which they are processed. The research is similar to the science that the U.S. Centre for Disease control and prevention is using to improve investigations for food-based illness outbreaks. However, in this case, IBM and Mars will be sequencing DNA collected from every microorganism in and on food products.

According to Welser, the process of “genome sequencing serves as a new kind of microscope – one that uses data to peer deeply into our natural environments to uncover insights that were previously unknowable.” By studying the genomic data obtained from food substances more carefully, scientists may be able to discover how best to create a completely safe and healthy system for managing the food supply chain.