Food Safety Technology: Protection Against Foodborne Illness

Open your fridge on any given day and you may find grapes from Chile, peppers from Mexico or broccoli from California. Generations ago, this wasn’t possible, but today we enjoy crisp produce grown thousands of miles away, even if it’s snowing outside. And while no one can deny their benefits, raw foods do carry a higher risk of foodborne illness. Today, researchers are leveraging a web of technologies—including blockchain—to trace, pinpoint, and stop the distribution of tainted products to prevent thousands of people from getting sick.

 

Though foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning,” is common, it can have serious consequences: The CDC estimates that 48 million people are sickened every year from consuming germs like Norovirus, Salmonella, and Listeria. Of these cases, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year. For children, older people, and those with underlying health conditions, these infections can be especially severe. Of course, the risk is minor when compared to the incredible health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

 

Foodborne illness is also economically disastrous, to the tune of $77 billion to $152 billion dollars annually, in the United States alone. And it also contributes to the jaw-dropping 125 to 160 billion pounds of food waste each year in the U.S., or about 40 percent of all food produced, since products that have any chance of contamination must be destroyed. That’s all the more incentive to use all the technologies in the agricultural arsenal to keep foodborne illness at bay.

 

Martin Wiedemann, a professor of food safety and food science at Cornell University, has dedicated years to the study and implementation of new technologies to help keep food safe. He’s quick to note that nothing can entirely eliminate foodborne illness. “Contamination can occur at the beginning on the field, or at the end of the supply chain in restaurants- and if you have the proverbial rabbit poop on your lettuce, no technology is going to make it go away.” What scientists and engineers can do, he says, is create a “digital ecosystem” of tools that are predictive, preventative, and reactive, for the best possible protection against illness.

Truckload of harvested fruits
Truckload of harvested fruits

Open your fridge on any given day and you may find grapes from Chile, peppers from Mexico or broccoli from California. Generations ago, this wasn’t possible, but today we enjoy crisp produce grown thousands of miles away, even if it’s snowing outside. And while no one can deny their benefits, raw foods do carry a higher risk of foodborne illness. Today, researchers are leveraging a web of technologies—including blockchain—to trace, pinpoint, and stop the distribution of tainted products to prevent thousands of people from getting sick.

 

Though foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning,” is common, it can have serious consequences: The CDC estimates that 48 million people are sickened every year from consuming germs like Norovirus, Salmonella, and Listeria. Of these cases, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year. For children, older people, and those with underlying health conditions, these infections can be especially severe. Of course, the risk is minor when compared to the incredible health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

 

Foodborne illness is also economically disastrous, to the tune of $77 billion to $152 billion dollars annually, in the United States alone. And it also contributes to the jaw-dropping 125 to 160 billion pounds of food waste each year in the U.S., or about 40 percent of all food produced, since products that have any chance of contamination must be destroyed. That’s all the more incentive to use all the technologies in the agricultural arsenal to keep foodborne illness at bay.

 

Martin Wiedemann, a professor of food safety and food science at Cornell University, has dedicated years to the study and implementation of new technologies to help keep food safe. He’s quick to note that nothing can entirely eliminate foodborne illness. “Contamination can occur at the beginning on the field, or at the end of the supply chain in restaurants- and if you have the proverbial rabbit poop on your lettuce, no technology is going to make it go away.” What scientists and engineers can do, he says, is create a “digital ecosystem” of tools that are predictive, preventative, and reactive, for the best possible protection against illness.

CRISPER-Cas9 is a powerful form of gene editing technology that researchers are studying for many applications, but food safety is one of the most exciting. Take the case of listeriosis, a nasty foodborne illness caused by a bacterial pathogen. By editing the genome of a potent bacteriophage—one of nature’s bacteria predators—researchers have defanged this illness, at least in the lab. As more advances like this move toward commercialization, we’ll have a powerful new weapon to use in fighting foodborne illness.

 

Until then, one of the most effective ways to keep the food supply as healthy as possible is to use superior tracking. Blockchain is a new technology that has the potential to keep consumers safe from foodborne illness. Rather than taking days to reveal the source of an illness through investigative work, researchers could identify the source in a fraction of the time using blockchain. That’s because a blockchain acts as a single, shared historical record that tracks every step of a transaction. Each party in the blockchain must consent before a new entry is made, so everyone collaborating stays informed, and once recorded, the transactions can’t be altered. In 2017, Walmart partnered with IBM and a group of food manufacturers to pilot the use of blockchain in a supply chain tracing exercise, and were able to reduce food tracing time from an average of one week, to just 2.2 seconds.

 

Even with the help of blockchain, it’s critical to know where the contamination originated, says Wiedemann. When there’s a foodborne-illness outbreak, investigators conduct a “traceback” process, from sick individuals back through the food supply chain—sometimes all the way to the source. While this used to take the form of old-fashioned investigative work involving phone calls, correspondence, site visits, and the collection of data, today this process can be streamlined through artificial intelligence, saving time and preventing illness from spreading.

 

Starting in the field, says Wiedemann, “artificial intelligence [AI] can tell you where and when surface water may have been contaminated with pathogens. If there’s a stream that goes by a farm, AI can determine that if it rains more than ten millimeters there’s an increased risk of contamination running off onto fields. Likewise, it can take into account houses upstream with septic systems and use factors like seasonality to decide whether or how stringently farmers should treat water.”

 

When farmers have a clearer sense of when they need to take action against possible pathogens, they can keep crops safer, and minimize the use of chlorine and other treatments which can be damaging in the long-term.

 

Once food reaches warehouses, restaurants, and supermarket shelves, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are another critical tool that can reveal potential problems with food products before they sicken consumers. RFID tags transmit data to devices known as readers, and the tags are currently used by retailers to manage and track inventory. For example, some stores use the tags to alert store staff about empty shelves that need restocking.

 

But Wiedemann says that the unobtrusive labels have a much broader range of potential applications. For example, “temperature monitoring by RFID could be very helpful. If an item has a 20-day shelf life, you could track how long it was at an unacceptable temperature.” With this information, grocers could implement dynamic shelf-life labeling. “So instead of ‘best by 4/28’, you’d see a QR code [that linked to] the item’s temperature history. And based on its temperature distribution pattern, it may actually be good [only] until 4/25.”

 

This new, more accurate form of expiration date could also take into account other factors, like the weather on the day it was harvested. “If there was rain in the prior three days,” says Wiedemann, “there’s an increased risk of contamination in some produce.” Armed with all this information, grocers and wholesalers could factor the data into pricing, making products with a shorter shelf life cheaper so as to reduce waste.

Microscopic view
Microscopic view

CRISPER-Cas9 is a powerful form of gene editing technology that researchers are studying for many applications, but food safety is one of the most exciting. Take the case of listeriosis, a nasty foodborne illness caused by a bacterial pathogen. By editing the genome of a potent bacteriophage—one of nature’s bacteria predators—researchers have defanged this illness, at least in the lab. As more advances like this move toward commercialization, we’ll have a powerful new weapon to use in fighting foodborne illness.

 

Until then, one of the most effective ways to keep the food supply as healthy as possible is to use superior tracking. Blockchain is a new technology that has the potential to keep consumers safe from foodborne illness. Rather than taking days to reveal the source of an illness through investigative work, researchers could identify the source in a fraction of the time using blockchain. That’s because a blockchain acts as a single, shared historical record that tracks every step of a transaction. Each party in the blockchain must consent before a new entry is made, so everyone collaborating stays informed, and once recorded, the transactions can’t be altered. In 2017, Walmart partnered with IBM and a group of food manufacturers to pilot the use of blockchain in a supply chain tracing exercise, and were able to reduce food tracing time from an average of one week, to just 2.2 seconds.

 

Even with the help of blockchain, it’s critical to know where the contamination originated, says Wiedemann. When there’s a foodborne-illness outbreak, investigators conduct a “traceback” process, from sick individuals back through the food supply chain—sometimes all the way to the source. While this used to take the form of old-fashioned investigative work involving phone calls, correspondence, site visits, and the collection of data, today this process can be streamlined through artificial intelligence, saving time and preventing illness from spreading.

 

Starting in the field, says Wiedemann, “artificial intelligence [AI] can tell you where and when surface water may have been contaminated with pathogens. If there’s a stream that goes by a farm, AI can determine that if it rains more than ten millimeters there’s an increased risk of contamination running off onto fields. Likewise, it can take into account houses upstream with septic systems and use factors like seasonality to decide whether or how stringently farmers should treat water.”

 

When farmers have a clearer sense of when they need to take action against possible pathogens, they can keep crops safer, and minimize the use of chlorine and other treatments which can be damaging in the long-term.

 

Once food reaches warehouses, restaurants, and supermarket shelves, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are another critical tool that can reveal potential problems with food products before they sicken consumers. RFID tags transmit data to devices known as readers, and the tags are currently used by retailers to manage and track inventory. For example, some stores use the tags to alert store staff about empty shelves that need restocking.

 

But Wiedemann says that the unobtrusive labels have a much broader range of potential applications. For example, “temperature monitoring by RFID could be very helpful. If an item has a 20-day shelf life, you could track how long it was at an unacceptable temperature.” With this information, grocers could implement dynamic shelf-life labeling. “So instead of ‘best by 4/28’, you’d see a QR code [that linked to] the item’s temperature history. And based on its temperature distribution pattern, it may actually be good [only] until 4/25.”

 

This new, more accurate form of expiration date could also take into account other factors, like the weather on the day it was harvested. “If there was rain in the prior three days,” says Wiedemann, “there’s an increased risk of contamination in some produce.” Armed with all this information, grocers and wholesalers could factor the data into pricing, making products with a shorter shelf life cheaper so as to reduce waste.

In the future, some of these advanced technologies may even be put in the hands of consumers themselves, through devices or apps that can read data from RFID tags on packaging. A team of researchers at MIT developed an RFID sensor that detects contaminants in food, like melamine in baby formula, and methanol in alcohol, with 96% accuracy. The same technology has also shown promise in detecting food spoilage; in 2015 a group at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland successfully added an RFID component that detects ethanol, a gas produced by rotting food. If this technology is implemented on a wide scale, one day consumers could browse the grocery store armed with their own tools to detect how safe food is, before bringing it home.

 

Foodborne illness has long been accepted as an uncomfortable but inevitable fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be. With an array of impressive new tools, and faster access to information, consumers, producers, and grocers may be able to make it a thing of the past.

The ear of rice grain and rfid tag put on dark background scene
The ear of rice grain and rfid tag put on dark background scene

In the future, some of these advanced technologies may even be put in the hands of consumers themselves, through devices or apps that can read data from RFID tags on packaging. A team of researchers at MIT developed an RFID sensor that detects contaminants in food, like melamine in baby formula, and methanol in alcohol, with 96% accuracy. The same technology has also shown promise in detecting food spoilage; in 2015 a group at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland successfully added an RFID component that detects ethanol, a gas produced by rotting food. If this technology is implemented on a wide scale, one day consumers could browse the grocery store armed with their own tools to detect how safe food is, before bringing it home.

 

Foodborne illness has long been accepted as an uncomfortable but inevitable fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be. With an array of impressive new tools, and faster access to information, consumers, producers, and grocers may be able to make it a thing of the past.