Farm to Fork: IBM/Mars to Sequence Microbiome of Global Food Supply Chain

– Originally Published: 2/8/2015 –

Mars Inc. and IBM announced on January 29, 2015 they have partnered to create the Consortium For Sequencing The Food Supply Chain. The initiative will study the the microbial ecology of food through the processing supply chain globally from soil to fork.

The Consortium will sequence bacteria, fungi and viruses that grow either directly on raw materials or processing facilities such as factories or kitchen countertops. Samples will be collected at Mars facilities worldwide. IBM Research will lend expertise and capabilities in the fields of genomics, big data and analytics.

Per IBM Research, the significant threat of food borne illness affects nearly every industry on every continent from government and healthcare to agriculture and retail, yet the massive issue continues to puzzle experts. “Aside from rigorous testing along the entire food chain – beginning with the soil at the farm and ending with the consumer – there is little done from an information technology standpoint to circumvent contamination at any point in the process…Researchers are harvesting and sequencing the DNA and RNA of simple food samples to determine where anomaly and mutations occur when paired with common organisms or genes, toxins, and heavy metals. Resulting in a ‘microbial baseline,’ or a benchmark representing normal microbe communities, the index produced from this study will be a gold standard for food and health officials globally to understand what triggers contamination and the spread of disease.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six Americans is affected by a foodborne illness each year. “We’ve got 130 factories in different parts of the world,” Mars Vice President of Corporate Research and Development Dave Crean told Lauren Hepler of GreenBiz. “As we look around through food supply chains, there are significant challenges to food safety.” The specific risk factors for microbes and their growth across the food supply chain are not well characterized.

Per David Fusaro of Foodprocessing.com, getting a handle on disease risk factors becomes even more important when considering that global bodies such as the U.N. estimate that food production (and clean water supplies) will have to increase dramatically to keep pace with population growth. “Safety problems arise because raw materials, ingredients and finished foods pass through the supply chain more quickly than they can be tested,” noted one paper on the topic (PDF) by Unilever and the Netherlands’ Utrecht University.

 The companies previously collaborated on a $10 million project to sequence the cocoa genome.

 

Photo: GreenBiz

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