In an interesting pairing, Mars Inc. and IBM Research on Jan. 29 established the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, a collaborative food safety platform that will leverage advances in genomics to further the understanding of what makes food safe.
“As the food supply chain becomes more global and complex, new, innovative approaches that use genetic data to better understand and improve food safety are emerging, holding the promise of unparalleled insight and understanding of the total supply chain,” the companies said in making the announcement. “In support of this goal, the consortium 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.”
While Mars doesn’t even come to mind when you think of food safety problems, a spokesperson for the company said it “feels a responsibility” to solve “grand challenges,” especially ones that involve applied science and research. And as a private, family-owned business, it needn’t justify the investment to shareholders.
Mars and IBM Research are providing the initial funding, although they’d like to sign up 10-12 partners “from across technology, agricultural companies and academia.”
IBM Research claims unique expertise and capabilities in the fields of genomics, big data and analytics. It has an Accelerated Discovery Lab for the large-scale computational and data requirements of this initiative.
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 countertops, 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.
“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,” said Dave Crean, vice president of 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, this pioneering 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,” said 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 but will ultimately extend up and down the entire food supply chain and include applications for farmers.
Understanding soil micro-organisms, for example, will be crucial to helping farmers learn how to protect their plants from pathogens while ensuring healthy growth and nutrient uptake.
The first data samples will be gathered at Mars-owned production facilities. Beyond the research, data and findings will be presented in a systematic way to enable affordable and widespread use of these testing techniques.
The consortium will be adding additional members from academia, industry and government. For more information about the consortium visit: Sequence the Food Supply Chain