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Can this tool predict and prevent food fraud before people get sick?

While 2012 marked the introduction of watershed federal food-safety reforms begun by the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011; the United States’ contaminated food problem still remains somewhat unresolved.

Each year, roughly one in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness, and countless more consume foods that aren’t exactly what their packaging claims – honey, olive oil, maple syrup and fish are all frequent targets of food fraud.

But with food sourced from an international scene of varying food safety standards, the challenges to regulating food are numerous. International suppliers often stand to gain financially by adulterating, or adding less expensive or inferior ingredients, to a product.

To combat the ongoing public safety risk from the intentional adulteration of the food supply, the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) at the University of Minnesota is in the process of developing a new tool to predict food disruptions occurring where the international food supply is vulnerable to contamination.

“In food, we tend to pick up on problems too late, when people have already become sick,” said Amy Kircher, Dr.P.H., who is leading development of the tool Focused Integration of Data for Early Signals (FIDES) and serves as director of the NCFPD.

To identify intentional food adulteration threats before illness strikes, NCFPD researchers are layering data sourced from global policy decisions, trade, weathercasting, social media, news, supply chains and more. The combined layers of data are run through an analysis triggering a warning once a formulated threshold has been reached.

For example, when a nuclear disaster like Fukushima takes place and fish nearby see high levels of radiation, the tool might update with an assessment of the situation to include an advisory to exercise additional precautions when purchasing fish from the area.

A flood like the one Thailand saw result in significant losses to the shrimp harvest in 2011 might trigger a warning to regulators to inspect shrimp more thoroughly. It might also warn regulators to be on the lookout for shrimp adulterated with banned antibiotics, which could make remaining shrimp artificially larger and more profitable.

How it works:

Image: FIDES Capabilities Map

Credit: NCFPD


The cost-saving potential of keeping contaminated foods out of the food system in this way is huge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports preventing a single fatal case of E. coli 0157 alone in 2012 saved the organization an estimated $7 million.

Thanks to funding from the Food and Drug Administration, the latest FIDES prototype was released in Oct. 2013. Once a final version is ready, the tool is expected to support new Food Safety Modernization rules, the latest iteration of which was released just last month.

“If we can pull contaminated food out of the system before it ever reaches the market,” said Kircher, “we could save money, time, lives and a lot of headaches.”

… and doubtless stomach aches, too.

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