Technology’s Role in Food Safety: The Impact of Big Data, Social Media and More
When we think about technology in the food and beverage industry, we may think along the lines of enhancements to how we process the food, more innovative product ideas, and more unique methods for how to package and distribute food. But technology has also started to prove a worthy approach to how we deal with food safety. There is a reason why the profession we work in is called food science. It’s because science goes into every step of the supply chain process. From how a farmer figures out the best time of year to plant a vegetable, to how a manufacturer processes it, to how the retailer stores and sells it, to how a consumer prepares it—science is the basis for not only making a high quality product, but also a wholesome, safe one. Technology is one of the many tools that scientists use to expand their knowledge and support advances within our world.
Let’s take a look at some current and emerging technologies that are helping to change how the food and beverage industry is managing food safety.
New Processing/Intervention Techniques
We are seeing quite a few emerging technologies around processing food to make it safer and more appealing. This is particularly critical with the new trend around clean labels and reducing the use of “artificial” preservatives (or at least what the general consumer considers artificial).
- HPP (high pressure processing) is a post-packaging, cold pasteurizing technique that kills pathogens without affecting the quality and nutritional properties of the product.
- Light-based technology (ultraviolet, pulsed, LED) enhances food shelf life and prevents food contaminants in products like milk and juice.
- Precision agriculture (satellite farming) uses GPS tracking systems and satellite imagery to monitor crop yields, soil levels and weather patterns to increase efficiencies.
Better Pathogen Testing Methods
Emerging pathogen testing technology is based on the biotechnology tools used within modern medical diagnostics. These new technologies provide faster, more sensitive, less expensive testing methods which is critical within the Food and Beverage industry as a good portion of our products are perishable.
- Automated sequencing equipment: Knowing the sequence of a pathogen’s nucleic acid allows detection of the pathogen. Also knowing the DNA can help determine the pathogen’s virulence factor.
- Membrane filters and filtering techniques: Facilitates the separation of pathogens from food products.
- Antibody-labeled magnets: Pulls the pathogen of choice out of a food for enrichment and concentration.
Nanotechnology is also now being employed within the Food and Beverage industry to help improve the quality and safety of food. This ranges across the supply chain from how food is grown to how it is being packaged.
- Clay nanocomposites: Provide an impermeable barrier to gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide in packaging materials.
- Silver nanoparticles: When embedded into the plastic of storage bins it kills any pathogens that might be in the product that is stored in that container.
- Zinc oxide nanoparticles: When incorporated into plastic packaging, can block UV rays and provide anti-bacterial protection. It also improves the strength and stability of the film.
Social media and other mobile technology based platforms are a source of vast amounts of information—whether you are looking for good or bad news, opinions, ratings, reports, etc. Building tools around this format can reduce recognition and response time when a food safety incident occurs. It also has the potential to enhance collaboration between industry and regulatory and help reduce the overall cost of outbreaks.
- Mobile Apps: The “Foodborne Illness Reporter” app was created by Hawaii’s Dept of Health to provide a tool for consumers to report potential Foodborne Illnesses (FBIs). The USDA “FoodKeeper” app provides info about smart food storage. The “Is My Food Safe?” app provides answers to general food safety questions.
- Twitter/Facebook/Yelp: A number of Food and Beverage companies are monitoring Yelp reviews, Twitter postings and other social media outlets looking for complaints related to illness, injury or even product quality issues. They can quickly and effectively communicate recall alerts and provide responses to any safety or quality concerns a consumer may pose.
While still a new concept within the food safety arena, many believe that big data will provide valuable insights to how we are managing our food supply and ensure that we are providing a high quality, safe, wholesome product to the world. Areas that are getting the most attention include focusing on use of:
- Genomics data (DNA fingerprinting and sequencing/subtyping to characterize and identify foodborne pathogens).
- Geographic information system (GIS).
- Remote temperature monitoring.
- Social media monitoring for food safety related information.
With all this data we can move from a reactive mode of behavior to a proactive one. Not only can we use real-time data and analytics but move towards predictive analytics.
Automated Food Safety Management Systems
So how do we tie all these great new food safety tools together? Through your automated Food Safety Management System (FSMS), of course. Having an automated FSMS helps to break down the barriers and silos that Food and Beverage companies have been living with for so many years.
- Integration: Your systems can all talk to each other, provide real-time visibility and control, and can pull in and utilize your big data, social media alerts, pathogen testing results and processing/intervention verification to provide the big picture of how your company is performing when it comes to food safety.
- Risk management: It provides the right risk assessment tools to manage hazards and risk at the right levels. You can handle nonconformances and Corrective and Preventive Actions (CAPA) in a quick, efficient manner to avoid waste, downtime, rework - or worse, recalls.
- Documentation/recordkeeping : It provides you with the tools to standardize, organize and centralize your document management system to help reduce the paperwork burden and provide easy creation, review and approval of all your programs and practices.
Many of us can admit that we see technology as both a blessing and a bane. No matter how you feel about technology, the fact is that it’s an integral part of our world now, and there is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t take every advantage of whatever technologies are available to us to help ensure we are securing a safe, wholesome food supply for our ever-expanding world.