Big data mining helps identify contaminated food sources

Thursday, 17 July, 2014

Identifying the source of foodborne disease outbreaks is not always easy. Some outbreaks have quite long incubation times and getting consumers to remember exactly what they ate some weeks ago is almost impossible. However, IBM has developed a tool that may help.

Using novel algorithms, visualisation and statistical techniques, the tool can use information on the date and location of billions of supermarket food items sold each week to quickly identify with high probability a set of potentially ‘guilty’ products within as few as 10 outbreak case reports.

Foodborne disease outbreaks of recent years demonstrate that due to increasingly interconnected supply chains, food-related crisis situations have the potential to affect thousands of people, leading to significant healthcare costs, loss of revenue for food companies and - in the worst cases - death. In the United States alone, one in six people are affected by foodborne diseases each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalisations, 3000 deaths and a nearly $80bn economic burden.

When a foodborne disease outbreak is detected, identifying the contaminated food quickly is vital to minimise the spread of illness and limit economic losses. However, the time required to detect it may range from days to weeks, creating extensive strain on the public health system.

Perhaps surprisingly, the petabytes of retail sales data have never before been used to accelerate the identification of contaminated food. In fact, this data already exists as part of the inventory systems used by retailers and distributors today, which manage up to 30,000 food items at any given time with nearly 3000 of them being perishable.

Recognising this issue, IBM scientists built a system that automatically identifies, contextualises and displays data from multiple sources to help reduce the time to identify the mostly likely contaminated sources by a factor of days or weeks. It integrates pre-computed retail data with geocoded public health data to allow investigators to see the distribution of suspect foods and, selecting an area of the map, view public health case reports and lab reports from clinical encounters. The algorithm effectively learns from every new report and recalculates the probability of each food that might be causing the illness.

“Predictive analytics based on location, content and context are driving our ability to quickly discover hidden patterns and relationships from diverse public health and retail data,” said James Kaufman, manager of public health research for IBM Research. “We are working with our public health clients and with retailers in the US to scale this research prototype and begin focusing on the 1.7bn supermarket items sold each week in the United States.”

How it works

To demonstrate the system’s effectiveness, IBM scientists worked with the Department of Biological Safety of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. In this demonstration, the scientists simulated 60,000 outbreaks of foodborne disease across 600 products using real-world food sales data from Germany.

Unfortunately, in real life, cases of foodborne disease do not show up all at once as outbreaks are reported over a period of time. Depending on the circumstances, it takes public health officials weeks or months to identify the real cause; sometimes this is even not possible at all. If the relevant data was provided by the retail companies, this could be improved significantly.

“The success of an outbreak investigation often depends on the willingness of private sector stakeholders to collaborate proactively with public health officials. This research illustrates an approach to create significant improvements without the need for any regulatory changes. This can be achieved by combining innovative software technology with already existing data and the willingness to share this information in crisis situations between private and public sector organisations,” said BfR Head of the Department Biological Safety Dr Bernd Appel.

This research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Computational Biology together with collaborators from Johns Hopkins University, Purdue University and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

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