Use It. Share It. Grow It
BEIJING—International Business Machines Corp. researchers in Beijing are developing new software to help consumers and companies track—from production to dinner plate—the food they eat to avoid contamination pitfalls that have plagued food manufacturers and consumers globally.
The Food Safety Simulator aims to educate shoppers about the reliability of their groceries by arming them with a mobile application that lets them scan the bar code of a product to see how safe it is. IBM assigns the product a star-rating—similar to a restaurant review service—using such factors as safety-inspection failures, supplier history, and recent recalls. A high number of stars means shoppers can feel confident about their selections.
The application—a finalist in this year's Asian Innovation Awards—displays how products stack up against competitors and it enables users to report health problems. It isn't yet on the market, and IBM doesn't have an estimate for when the application will be available.
The software also works with manufacturers, spinning up risk models and gauging probability, to pinpoint the sources of contamination and to curb the spread of tainted products getting into the hands of shoppers.
A product like packaged sausage, says IBM researcher Ron Cao, is made up of different ingredients in a factory where multiple animals—likely from a myriad of suppliers—are blended together to form the wiener. "If a consumer gets sick after eating a sausage, it's impossible, in most cases, to assign one sausage to one supplier and one pig," Dr. Cao said.
IBM's service can't directly connect the link from a tainted sausage to a sick pig, but it enables manufacturers to better estimate the culprit's source and find faults in the food-making process. FSS tells companies what kind of data they need to be collecting—information such as volume of ingredients, temperature of food, and timing of all the processes. Then it analyzes the data collected, finding weak spots.
For a product like wrapped sausage, it tracks the mixing of the pork and flour, the packaging process, and the days in transportation. If a consumer reports illness, the sausage-maker can look at where the problem occurred and determine whether there are other contaminated products.
There are limits to the efficacy of the Food Safety Simulator. In China, food-safety issues often happen at the source of the supplier instead of at the manufacturer. There are more than 50,000 food suppliers—small farms with fewer than 10 people working on them—that grow produce and raise livestock for bigger food producers. While a big food producer can track the safety of its own procedures, it still has to be sure that the food supply it uses is safe.
In March, China's largest meat processor, Shanghui Group, sent pork to market that was full of an illegal additive. The pork had been produced by a smaller affiliate company.
Manufacturers will also have to adjust their procedures so that data can be collected during steps of manufacturing, potentially slowing down the process of getting food on shelves. Still, IBM's Dr. Cao says the risk models built with the software will help cut down the high number of illnesses that occur due to bad food. Food-borne and waterborne diseases cause deaths of 2.2 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Food safety has been in the spotlight amid the aftermath of a May E. coli outbreak in Europe, which caused the deaths of 48 and sickened 4,000.
The U.S. passed this year the Food Safety Modernization Act to rebuild a food oversight management system, requiring importers to verify food safety.
In China, the government has been waging a crackdown against food-safety violators, as problems persist years after the 2008 melamine scandal in which six children were killed and 300,000 others fell ill after drinking infant formula tainted with the chemical.
Currently, there are few high-tech solutions being used in China to find problems or to analyze and draw correlations between them, Dr. Cao said. In Europe and America, food tracking centers on helping companies understand delivery of their products to the store. By comparison, there's little focus on tracking the Achilles' heel in production.
Demand in China for food-safety products, such as tracking devices, is estimated to climb 15% to 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) in the next two years, according to Cleveland-based research company Freedonia Group.
Although IBM's FSS isn't available on the market yet, it is being tested with an undisclosed health-food retailer in the U.S., as well as with the provincial government of Shandong, which is one of the country's largest agricultural hubs. Shandong's government is testing the software in a local meat-processing company.
IBM researchers say FSS can be used by governments to gauge, for example, how changing the regulation on refrigeration temperatures would affect the quality of products and the strains on delivery and production.