Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
Share Print

Making Food Safer

New analytics tool helps state agencies respond to food-borne threats

The word "terrorism" can evoke a visceral response often associated with images of bombs or military action. Less likely to come immediately to mind is the thought of food. And yet, as the world's food supply becomes more global, a safe and secure food supply chain becomes increasingly important.

A food contamination event—whether unintentional or the result of a terrorist act—could quickly become a catastrophic event in our ever-more-connected modern world.

This is why researchers at the Kenan Institute's Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy have received support from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions to create the N.C. Foodborne Events Data Integration and Analysis (NCFEDA) tool, a food safety early-alert system.

"This new tool provides critical capabilities for visualizing, analyzing, and integrating data for managing a foodborne contamination event in real time," says center director Noel Greis. "It is a logical extension of the work the center already does to ensure food supply chain safety."

NCFEDA is designed for the state of North Carolina with the intent of becoming a national model. It was developed in collaboration with researchers at the N.C. Center for Public Health Preparedness at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Food safety system is complex and disconnected

The world's food safety system is dynamic and complex. Uncovering relationships among seemingly unrelated facts is the key to timely decision-making in response to a food-borne contamination event, Greis says.

"There are many variables, and no two food-borne disease outbreaks are exactly alike," says Monica Nogueira, Ph.D., director of the center's Intelligent Systems Laboratory, which develops and tests software and analytical tools to improve logistics processes and decision-making.

"There are a number of stages at which a food product can be contaminated, from the farm to transportation companies to processing facilities, distributors, and retailers," Nogueira says. "A product like milk, for instance, is complicated because it goes into a large number of products, such as cookies, butter, and soup, so contamination can spread widely."

Fifteen federal agencies plus a variety of state agencies and public health offices play a part in the U.S. food safety system. And under the new Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January by President Obama, the private sector has new responsibilities and a more active role in assuring food safety.

"There are so many people with different responses to an event, and there are currently no ways to link all the information," Greis says. The result is a major lag time, or "latency," between the time a case of food-borne disease is detected and the time all offending products are removed from retail, institutional, and residential shelves across the country.

"In the case of the Peanut Corporation of America salmonella contamination in 2008, nearly 10 months passed from the first report of illness to the time the last product was removed from retail shelves," Greis says.

Bridging gaps in the system

NCFEDA bridges information silos across state agencies while adding new information from the private sector and consumers. The goal is to shorten the time between identifying and responding to an event to get contaminated food off shelves much more quickly.

The tool uses interactive maps and charts to integrate many sources of information and make emerging patterns become obvious more quickly. There are also links to the latest recalls and news outlets reporting food contamination-related events.

"A stakeholder with access to the system can quickly determine if there are patterns of illness or reports in a specific area of the state. And what they'll be seeing will be happening in near-real time, not weeks or months later," Nogueira says.

"It looks simple but behind those computer screens is a highly sophisticated intelligence engine. It's like a brain," Greis says, "and it will lead to preventing illness and ultimately saving lives."

For more information, contact:

Noel Greis, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy
Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Campus Box 3440, Kenan Center
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440

Monica Nogueira, Ph.D.
Director, Intelligent Systems Lab
Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy
Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Campus Box 3440, Kenan Center
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440