IBM, Mars to Improve Food Safety by Cataloging Food Bacteria

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Jan 28, 2016

Hoping to drive advances in global food safety, scientists from IBM Research and Mars Inc., McLean, Va., are reportedly tracking food’s microbiome to improve food safety and productivity. The data scientists from IBM are said to be developing a robust way to prevent food contamination bacteria that can kill thousands of Americans every year. The ambitious goal is to track food across the global supply chain by sequencing the DNA of the microorganisms that live on it.

Food has thousands of these tiny hitchhikers, the vast majority harmless, making up what’s known as a “microbiome.” Protecting the global food supply is a monumental public health challenge, says a news release from Mars. In the U.S. alone, one in six people are affected by food-borne diseases each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and $9 billion in medical costs. Another $75 billion worth of contaminated food is recalled and discarded annually.

Lead researcher Jeff Welser notes that food has thousands or microorganisms that live on it, most of which are harmless, but make up what's called the "microbiome." Conditions as diverse as soil and processing methods influence a food’s microbiome, making the collective DNA of its microorganisms a detailed and unique record of its path to the plate.

Early last year, the two companies formed the “Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain,” a collaborative food safety platform to leverage advances in genomics to further understanding of what makes food safe.

As a first step, the consortium’s scientists will investigate the genetic fingerprints of living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses and how they grow in different environments, including counter tops, factories, and raw materials. This data will be used to further investigate how bacteria interact, which could result in completely new ways to view supply chain food safety management.

Innovative approaches that use genetic data to better understand and improve food safety are emerging, and hold the promise of unparalleled insight and understanding of the total supply chain. In support of this goal, the consortium says it will conduct the largest-ever metagenomics study to categorize and understand micro-organisms and the factors that influence their activity in a normal, safe factory environment. This work could be extended into the larger context of the food supply chain -- from farm to fork -- and lead to new insights into how microorganisms interact within a factory ecology and be better controlled by new data and science-driven practices.

IBM is currently conducting tests in collaboration with Mars by tracking the ingredients arriving at one of the company’s dog food plants.

“The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain has the potential to revolutionize food safety, providing a powerful tool to identify and address new threats on an unprecedented scale, enabling critical breakthroughs in global food safety,” says Dave Crean, vice president, corporate research and development, at Mars. “We are excited to be working with IBM Research on this, and look forward to welcoming additional partners in the future to help drive global innovation in genomics, food, and agriculture.”

While many food companies such as Mars already have rigorous processes in place to ensure food safety risks are managed appropriately, the companies say this application of genomics will enable an in-depth understanding and categorization of micro-organisms on a much bigger scale than has previously been possible.

“Genome sequencing serves as a new kind of microscope – one that uses data to peer deeply into our natural environment to uncover insights that were previously unknowable,” points out Jeff Welser, vice president and lab director, at IBM Research - Almaden. “By mining insights from genomic data, we’re seeking to understand how to identify, interpret and ultimately create healthy and protective microbial management systems within the food supply chain.”

The consortium’s research will initially focus on select raw materials and factory environments, with the first data samples gathered at Mars-owned production facilities, but will ultimately extend up and down the entire food supply chain and include applications for farmers.

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