The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain

IBM Research and Mars tackle global health with food safety partnership

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.

In a novel large-scale experiment between IBM and Mars, Inc., 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.


“Investigating the genetic fingerprints of food ingredients and their environments will help us unearth genomic keys to healthy food and people.” – Jeff Welser, Vice President and Lab Director, IBM Research – Almaden


A carefully designed informatics infrastructure developed in the IBM Accelerated Discovery Lab, a data and analytics hub for IBM researchers and their clients and partners, will help the team parse and aggregate terabytes of genomic data from Mars and apply decades of refined analytics to uncover new insights. Adding relevant weather, transport and other contextual data could help define a targeted breakout, marking on the index a warning for food producers and distributors at the outset of a processing cycle.

The research environment uniquely allows experts from both parties to integrate data from multiple sources, and to use state of the art bioinformatic algorithms to identify the active genes and metabolic processes in the food ingredients. This allows for identification of anomalies with speed and precision, and to design new tests and protocols for for different food and health processes.

Minimizing contaminated food outbreaks is a big public health issue. In the U.S. alone, one in six people are affected by food-borne diseases each year. That results in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and $9 billion in medical costs. Add to that another $75 billion annually in contaminated food that has to be recalled and thrown away. As the food supply chain becomes more global and complex, food safety issues will continue to increase until there are new scientific methods to mitigate the safety hazards within the system.

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About Food Safety

Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain

The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain (SFSC) will examine the global food chain – from farms, transport, processing facilities and distribution channels to restaurants and grocery stories – and apply genomics and analytics techniques to mitigate food borne illness and other risks in food management.

The Consortium, run by IBM Research and Mars, Inc., will focus on surveillance, risk asssessment and diagnosis of food borne pathogens, using a scientific approach:

  • Data: Genomic and microbiome data gathered from areas of the food delivery chain
  • Expertise: Collaboration of expertise from industry, research and academia with experience and capabilities focused on the challenge, i.e. an informatics infrastructure to move fast from data to decisions
  • Analytics: Prototype system access that is secure and scalable for defined projects, output reports and on-going increased insight with new data sets

How to Join SFSC

SFSC seeks to address challenges in the food industry that have not been solved by traditional approaches, coupling IBM’s $6B investment in cross-industry analytics R&D with the deep industry expertise of Mars and extended bioinformatics partners.

Membership requires a two-year minimum commitment, in order to address large-scale business, planning or operational issues that will provide extraordinary value to the member.

Membership enables direct collaboration and partnership with IBM and its unique Accelerated Discovery research environment, working in a secure setting on specific data challenges, with access to IBM’s portfolio of analytics and data management capabilities.

Contact IBM Research

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