Mars and IBM to use genetic data for food safety understanding

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Mars partners with IBM Research for consortium to drive advances in food safety
Mars partners with IBM Research for consortium to drive advances in food safety

Related tags Food safety

Mars and IBM Research have created a consortium which will use advances in genomics to boost food safety.

The consortium will conduct a metagenomics study to categorize and understand micro-organisms and the factors that influence their activity in a normal factory environment.

First data samples will be gathered at Mars-owned production facilities, while IBM’s genomics, healthcare and analytics experts will use its Accelerated Discovery THINKLab for the computational and data requirements.

Using genetic data to be proactive

Scientists will investigate the genetic fingerprints of organisms such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses and how they grow in different environments, including countertops, factories and raw materials.

This data will be used to investigate how bacteria interact, which could result in new ways to view supply chain food safety management.

Dave Crean, vice president, corporate research and development at Mars said the study will offer challenges including intense maths and data management.

“We have made great progress on food safety with the application of HACCP and businesses have good ways to operate but with the advance of new technology such as sequencing genomes we can go even further,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.

“This technology can be used to provide an early warning system. Mars has a broad footprint so we can look at raw materials and the food supply globally.

“With whole genome sequencing we can look at food processing environments, what’s there, are some more prone than others to certain things and if there is a relationship between organisms.  

“The depth of food safety knowledge and manufacturing marries with the capabilities of IBM to sequence whole genomes and we can both get together and look at it differently.” 

While many food companies have processes to ensure food safety risks are managed appropriately, genomics will enable an in-depth understanding and categorization of micro-organisms on a much bigger scale than has previously been possible.

The consortium’s research will initially focus on select raw materials and factory environments but will extend throughout the food supply chain and include applications for farmers.

Started testing samples

Crean said it has begun processing samples, such as flour, to build their understanding.

“We have started processing samples, getting the methods working so you take the sample, process it, get the data and then look at the data.

“WGS can be expensive but the price is coming down, the efficiency is improving and we are at the right stage to use this application for food data and share it with others.

“We are focussing on flour, protein meals which give a good insight and we are also doing work in pet food on the environment there as it is a sensitive indicator of food safety and food quality.”

The collaboration is for an initial three years and Mars has worked with IBM in the past to sequence the cocoa genome​.  

Genome sequencing serves as a new kind of microscope – one that uses data to peer deeply into our natural environment to uncover insights that were previously unknowable​,” said Jeff Welser, vice president and lab director, IBM Research - Almaden.

“By mining insights from genomic data, we’re seeking to understand how to identify, interpret and ultimately create healthy and protective microbial management systems within the food supply chain.”

The consortium will be adding additional members from academia, industry and government.

Crean said it hopes to collaborate with the FDA and/or CDC who use whole genome sequencing in foodborne disease outbreaks and it has also worked closely in the past with UC Davis, which is taking part in the 100k genome project​. 

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