Food safety is a major concern for every sector of the food industry, as well as consumers. After major foodborne illness incidents like Blue Bell's listeria contamination, or Chipotle's recent norovirus outbreak, it can be hard for companies to recover and gain back the trust of customers. The problem is, it is also more difficult than ever to detect and prevent contamination.
The food supply chain is extremely vast, with so many hands taking part in the production of just one meal. Food passes through the hands of farmers, warehouse workers, packers, retailers, chefs, servers, and a whole host of other people to finally end up on our tables. In the case of Chipotle, it thought it was doing right by customers by having lots of fresh ingredients and doing prep work in-house. However, that backfired, and the chain is now moving most of its ingredient production into central locations to enable more testing and prevent another outbreak.
Some of the problem lies in the current testing systems for bacteria. Usually, food needs to be tested for specific types of contamination, such as listeria or E.coli, but if a lesser known or new type of bacteria is present, it may not be detected. This is what tech company IBM is hoping to change. IBM is developing a microbiome testing system to prevent food contamination, reported Fortune. It is experimenting with tracking food across the supply chain and sequencing the DNA of the microorganisms on that food to detect any bacteria that could be present. This kind of microbiome-based test would be able to detect any contamination in food, without having to test specifically for each chemical. It would see any difference in the product from its normal baseline, finding anything that may be hiding in the food.
This test would also be able to more than just help food safety. It could, for example, help track which microbiomes help meats, fruits, and vegetables stay fresh longer, and could curb food fraud by confirming if a fish is the species the supplier claims it is. Every test would build up a massive database of microbiomes that could be used to improve future tests.
Creating the initial microbiome database to begin the testing system is no small undertaking, though, and IBM is still working to build it up, seeking more food industry partners to join the project.
Biotech company Invisible Sentinel is also looking to make food testing more efficient, and affordable, with its Veriflow system that uses a hand-held device to detect the DNA of microorganisms quickly, according to a report in Minneapolis Star Tribune. Wawa Inc. has been using Veriflow for about three years, saying it is "two to three times faster than others." Its low setup price for an in-house lab, only $5,000, makes it easier for smaller companies to test more often and removes the need to ship products out for testing.
The company's business model seems to be working, as its sales increased from $50,000 in its first year, 2013, to more than $4 million in 2015. It also projects its sales will continue to rise to $30 million in 2018 and $60 million in 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1 in 6 Americans becomes sick from contaminated foods or beverages every year, and 3,000 die. Obviously, food contamination is a major problem. And the need for better food testing will only increase as populations rise and supply chains become more complicated. Hopefully, more companies like IBM and Invisible Sentinels will emerge that can make food bacteria testing more efficient and effective.