Fast Company

The Tech That Will Prevent The Next Big Foodborne Illness Outbreak

By tracking every step of the food production process, the next time people start getting sick from cantaloupes, it will be much easier to find which farms are clean, and which are responsible.

Food contamination has been in the news recently, and for good reason; at this moment, people in the U.S. are still getting sick from cantaloupe tainted with listeria. Every year, there are over 76 million food-related illnesses. And at least some of them could be prevented if suppliers used more comprehensive tracking systems.

Case in point: Using technology from IBM and food safety-technology company N2N Global, fruit and vegetable co-op Cherry Central can look at a bottle of its juice and tell you what oranges went into it, when the oranges were harvested, where they were harvested, who harvested them, where they were located through the entire process, when they were transported, what transport vehicle was used, and who the oranges were sent to. All of the data can be viewed and analyzed in real-time, courtesy of IBM's analytics capabilities.

Every time a food product is moved or touched by someone new, supply chain data can be updated via mobile phone with information about date, time, location, temperature, and food safety compliance.

"The agricultural space is just now starting to come into the 1980s," jokes Randy Odom, director of sales and mareting at N2N. And in fact, N2N's technology has been around for years--but until 2009, it was only used by a small group of companies in Europe. That's when N2N purchased it.

"Everybody's a little suspicious, quite honestly, because it's like, this has been around 15 years and nobody knows about it? It's because a small group of programmers in Denmark built it," explains Odom.

So far, there are five companies (including Cherry Central) that are using the N2N and IBM system. That's not enough to prevent a large-scale foodborne illness outbreak, but the technology could be incredibly useful if it becomes more widespread. Instead of shuffling through stacks of paper--a process that could take a week or longer--a farm could clear its name in a matter of minutes. That would allow authorities to find the offending food product much faster. And with such detailed quality control information available, suppliers could prevent outbreaks in the first place.

"It's like being able to audit every location, every day, all the time," says Odom.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

[Image: Flickr user theilr]

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