How sequencing foods’ DNA could help us prevent diseases

Davey Alba asks in Wired, what’s almost as important to life as food? Food safety.

Last year, in the US, according to the CDC, one in six people were affected by food-borne diseases, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and an economic burden totaling $80 billion.

Scientist from IBM Research and Mars Incorporated have announced the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium, a collaborative food safety organization that aims to leverage advances in genomics and analytics to further our understanding of what makes food safe.

The researchers will conduct the largest-ever metagenomics study of our foods, sequencing the DNA and RNA of popular foods in an effort to identify what traits keep food safe and these can be effected by outside microorganisms and other factors. Eventually, the researchers will extend the project “from farm to fork,” examining materials across the length and breadth of the supply chain.

In this way, IBM Research and Mars are joining many others, including the San Francisco-based startup Hampton Creek, who hope to supercharge food R&D using data analysis. After reinventing Google and Facebook and so many other online operations, the big data movement is now moving into other industries, ranging from medicine and healthcare to the development of new industrial materials.

“We want to get a baseline for safe food ingredients, all the way up and down the food supply chain, including what makes healthy biochemistry,” says James Kaufman, public health manager for IBM Research. “If you can understand what a normal, healthy microbiome looks like, you can figure some things out about how that microbiome will respond to the unknown.”

Essentially, the scientists are hoping to uncover what combination of microbes that makes food ingredients safe, and what factors affect the structure of these microbial communities, including exposure to new pathogenic organisms and other impurities that may not have ever come up yet. It is these unknowns, Kaufman explains, that can eventually make food unsafe—whether that’s the evolution of new organisms, a misguided attempt at innovating food, or even because of an intentional act of terrorism.

And for no particular reason, here are the Beatles, who today in 1969, made their last public performance on the roof of Apple Records in London.

U2 sucks.


Mars to set up food safety center in China

Mars Inc, whose brands include M&M and Dove, is building a global food safety center in China to help further expand knowledge and understanding of effective global food safety management.

mars.incScheduled to open in the summer of 2015 in Huairou, a suburb of Beijing, the $15 million center will be the first of its kind for Mars and one of the first facilities of its kind for the region and the industry, with the purpose of conducting non-profit food safety research and training.

“We are developing this center to focus on horizon scanning, researching new threats, developing new methods, and building capability through education and training,” according to Mars.

The goals are to develop enabling science that can be translated into more robust and cost effective food safety and quality systems, to drive continuous improvement throughout the Mars supply networks.

The center also aims to develop an external global network of universities and research institutions to enhance their ability to adapt to new challenges and opportunities, as well as to provide laboratory and technical facilities to regulators and researchers.

The center will be open to internal and external audiences to enable networking and to support standard development and contribute where appropriate to government food safety systems.

Gonzalo Erdozain: Immediate, clear response to food safety incident restores my trust

Two weeks ago I blogged about finding a staple in my pretzel M&M.

I dug some more into the issue after being contacted by Mars representatives and found out Mars has strict safety measures in all their factories. The use of any staple is forbidden at their factories just for this very reason. They also told me they have metal detectors throughout the manufacturing line to pick up any metal items that could have somehow made it into their product.

It was reassuring to hear from Mars time and again they take these matters seriously and that they will investigate the matter. They sent me a letter and 4 coupons for $5 each and things are golden. The take-home message is, when faced with a crisis, don’t run, hide or deny it (like Maple Leaf, Heston Blumenthal and the like), but face it, show consumers you are sorry and you are on top of it. That is the only way to regain their trust. And mine.