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Mahni Ghorashi, Clear Labs
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The Future of Food Safety: A Q&A with Mars, Inc.

By Mahni Ghorashi
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Mahni Ghorashi, Clear Labs

Food safety professionals often work behind-the-scenes, developing the systems and processes that keep our food supply free of harm. While a vital job, it’s often thankless work—recognition only comes when there’s a recall or an outbreak.

And yet, the food safety industry is evolving rapidly. New threats are emerging, new technologies are being deployed, and new regulations are causing changes in our fundamental infrastructure. “Good enough” pathogen detection is no longer good enough. As a result of new pressures, the food safety lab is emerging as one of the most promising centers of innovation in the entire supply chain. It’s time that the people who are driving this wave of innovation and change receive the positive recognition for their work that they deserve.

That’s why we’re starting this Q&A series—to hear the success stories, the best practices, the hurdles and the achievements from the best in the industry. We will dive deep with the experts into some of the biggest challenges and opportunities our industry faces, focused particularly on new technology that is advancing the industry by leaps and bounds—from blockchain to NGS to machine learning. As this series evolves, we hope that readers will be informed and inspired by what the future holds.

For our first interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Baker, corporate food safety science and capability director at Mars, Inc.. Bob leads the corporate food safety science strategy for Mars, Incorporated and provides leadership and consultation on food safety capability development and current and future challenges impacting global food security. Prior to his current role, Bob was responsible for the design, construction and leadership of the Mars Global Food Safety Center in Beijing, China.

Mahni Ghorashi: What are the biggest risks to our food safety infrastructure in 2018? What’s keeping you up at night?

Bob Baker: Food safety risks are increasing at an unprecedented rate, with new threats and hazards constantly emerging, changes in agricultural practices and food production, and the environment. The globalization of trade means that an issue in one part of the world often impacts the global supply chain.

To ensure safer food for all, the identification and isolation of potential and developing issues needs to happen at a much faster pace. At Mars, we believe industry has a crucial role to play in helping all stakeholders in the food supply chain identify risks and solutions, but no entity can do this alone. That’s why we have advocated for a new approach to food safety, one rooted in knowledge sharing and collaboration. That’s why we launched our Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) in 2015.

GFSC is conducting original research and collaborating in a number of areas that we see as critical—mycotoxin management, rapid detection and identification of pathogens, raw material and product authenticity, operational food safety optimization and transforming food safety through data integration.

Although we see improvements in some areas, some of them are becoming more complex. Mycotoxins are a prime example of that. Food fraud is another area of growing concern, and addressing that is going to take a focus on technology, regulation and enforcement and a number of other areas to deliver transparency, to verify sourcing, and ultimately ensure that customers and consumers are purchasing and consuming safe food.

Ghorashi: What are you most excited about? What’s changing in a good way in the food safety sector?

Baker: What’s encouraging is we’re seeing is a willingness to share information. At Mars we often bring together world experts from across the globe to focus on food safety challenges. We continue to see great levels of knowledge sharing and collaboration.

There are also new tools and new technologies being developed and applied. Something we’re excited about is a trial of portable ‘in-field’ DNA sequencing technology on one of our production lines in China. This is an approach that could, with automated sampling, reduce test times.

We’re also excited about the IBM-Mars Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain—early signs have been very encouraging. This is an approach that could change the nature of food safety management, taking us from testing for a specific pathogen, to a situation where we could map the entire makeup of an environment and predict food safety issues based on changes within that environment.

Ghorashi: If you take a look at the homepage of any of the food safety trade publications, all you see is recall after recall. Are transparency and technological advancement bringing more risks to light, and are things generally trending towards improvement?

Baker: At Mars, quality is our first principle and we take it seriously—if we believe that a recall needs to be made in order to ensure the safety of our consumers then we will do it. We also share lessons from recalls across our business to ensure that we learn from every experience.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a safe place for businesses to share such insights with each other. So although we are seeing more collaboration in the field of food safety generally, critical knowledge and experience from recalls is not being shared more broadly which may be having an impact.

Regarding the role of technological advancement, the hope is that as better tools and more advanced technology become available, it will be easier to pinpoint issues in the food supply chain much more effectively and much earlier than before which can only be a good thing.

Ghorashi: Do you see 2018 as the year when NGS technologies will find widespread adoption for food-safety testing applications? What can government and industry do to help accelerate adoption?

Baker: Next-generation sequencing has a lot of potential, but it may take time to be adopted fully.

We are very pleased to see the U.S. government continue to view food safety as a priority. The FDA and the CDC are already moving from single-cell cultures and single genes to mixed genomics and metagenomics. At Mars, we see metagenomics as the future of food safety because it may help identify sentinels of food safety and predict potential issues through microbiome shifts.

The key to the development and adoption of any successful technology is sharing knowledge so that all parties from the government, industry and NGOs can build on it. Early results from the IBM-Mars Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain have been encouraging and we are actively sharing these initial insights via publications and scientific forums.

Ghorashi: What are some new technology processes on the horizon for 2018, and where should industry and government be investing its time and resources?

Baker: Food safety challenges are increasing, and we need to collaborate and share insights if we are to ensure safe food.

One major area is informatics and how we can enable better application of data mining, more applied bioinformatics and statistics. How can key players –regulators, industry, NGOs—get together and share data? How do you better mine data to move to a predictive model? This is an area that could benefit from a more focused approach between government and industry.

Ghorashi: What is your #1 goal for the industry in 2018? Fewer recalls? New tech implementation? Better regulatory oversight?

Baker: We’d like to see progress in all of the above, and we will continue to work with a range of stakeholders to move the needle on food safety.

That said, the food safety challenges facing us all are complex and evolving. Water and environmental contaminants are areas that industry and regulators are also looking at, but all of these challenges will take time to address. It’s about capturing and ensuring visibility to the right insights and prioritizing key challenges that we can tackle together through collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Metagenomics, Food Safety

Preventing Outbreaks a Matter of How, Not When

By Maria Fontanazza
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Metagenomics, Food Safety

When it comes to preventing foodborne illness, staying ahead of the game can be an elusive task. In light of the recent outbreaks affecting Chipotle (norovirus, Salmonella, E. coli) and Dole’s packaged salad (Listeria), having the ability to identify potentially deadly outbreaks before they begin (every time) would certainly be the holy grail of food safety.

One year ago IBM Research and Mars, Inc. embarked on a partnership with that very goal in mind. They established the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, which they’ve touted as “the largest-ever metagenomics study…sequencing the DNA and RNA of major food ingredients in various environments, at all stages in the supply chain, to unlock food safety insights hidden in big data”.  The idea is to sequence metagenomics on different parts of the food supply chain and build reference databases as to what is a healthy/unhealthy microbiome, what bacteria lives there on a regular basis, and how are they interacting. From there, the information would be used to identify potential hazards, according to Jeff Welser, vice president and lab director at IBM Research–Almaden.

“Obviously a major concern is to always make sure there’s a safe food supply chain. That becomes increasingly difficult as our food supply chain becomes more global and distributed [in such a way] that no individual company owns a portion of it,” says Welser. “That’s really the reason for attacking the metagenomics problem. Right now we test for E. coli, Listeria, or all the known pathogens. But if there’s something that’s unknown and has never been there before, if you’re not testing for it, you’re not going to find it. Testing for the unknown is an impossible task.” With the recent addition of the diagnostics company Bio-Rad to the collaborative effort, the consortium is preparing to publish information about its progress over the past year.  In an interview with Food Safety Tech, Welser discusses the consortium’s efforts since it was established and how it is starting to see evidence that using microbiomes could provide insights on food safety issues in advance.

Food Safety Tech: What progress has the Consortium made over the past year?

Jeff Welser: For the first project with Mars, we decided to focus around pet food. Although they might be known for their chocolates, at least half of Mars’ revenue comes from the pet care industry. It’s a good area to start because it uses the same food ingredients as human food, but it’s processed very differently. There’s a large conglomeration of parts in pet food that might not be part of human food, but the tests for doing the work is directly applicable to human food. We started at a factory of theirs and sampled the raw ingredients coming in. Over the past year, we’ve been establishing whether we can measure a stable microbiome (if we measure day to day, the same ingredient and the same supplier) and [be able to identify] when something has changed.

At a high level, we believe the thesis is playing out. We’re going to publish work that is much more rigorous than that statement. We see good evidence that the overall thesis of monitoring the microbiome appears to be viable, at least for raw food ingredients. We would like to make it more quantitative, figure out how you would actually use this on a regular basis, and think about other places we could test, such as other parts of the factory or machines.

Sequencing the Food Supply Chain
Sequencing the food supply chain. Click to enlarge infographic (Courtesy of IBM Research)

FST: What are the steps to sequencing a microbiome?

Welser: A sample of food is taken into a lab where a process breaks down the cell walls to release the DNA and RNA into a slurry. A next-generation sequencing machine identifies every snippet of DNA and RNA it can from that sample, resulting in huge amounts of data. That data is transferred to IBM and other partners for analysis of the presence of organisms. It’s not a straightforward calculation, because different organisms often share genes or have similar snippets of genes. Also, because you’ve broken everything up, you don’t have a full gene necessarily; you might have a snippet of a gene. You want to look at different types of genes and different areas to identify bad organisms, etc.  When looking at DNA and RNA, you want to try to determine if an organism is currently active.

The process is all about the analysis of the data sequence. That’s where we think it has a huge amount of possibility, but it will take more time to understand it. Once you have the data, you can combine it in different ways to figure out what it means.

FST: Discuss the significance of the sequencing project in the context of recent foodborne illness outbreaks. How could the information gleaned help prevent future outbreaks?

Welser: In general, this is exactly what we’re hoping to achieve. Since you test the microbiome at any point in the supply chain, the hope is that it gives you much better headlights to a potential contamination issue wherever it occurs. Currently raw food ingredients come into a factory before they’re processed. If you see the problem with the microbiome right there, you can stop it before it gets into the machinery. Of course, you don’t know whether it came in the shipment, from the farm itself, etc. But if you’re testing in those places, hopefully you’ll figure that out as early as possible. On the other end, when a company processes food and it’s shipped to the store, it goes onto the [store] shelves. It’s not like anyone is testing on a regular basis, but in theory you could do testing to see if the ingredient is showing a different microbiome than what is normally seen.

The real challenge in the retail space is that today you can test anything sitting on the shelves for E. coli, Listeria, etc.— the [pathogens] we know about. It’s not regularly done when [product] is sitting on the shelves, because it’s not clear how effectively you can do it. It still doesn’t get over the challenge of how best to approach testing—how often it needs to be done, what’s the methodology, etc. These are all still challenges ahead. In theory, this can be used anywhere, and the advantage is that it would tell you if anything has changed [versus] testing for [the presence of] one thing.

FST: How will Bio-Rad contribute to this partnership?

Welser: We’re excited about Bio-Rad joining, because right now we’re taking samples and doing next-generation sequencing to identify the microbiome. It’s much less expensive than it used to be, but it’s still a fairly expensive test. We don’t envision that everyone will be doing this every day in their factory. However, we want to build up our understanding to determine what kinds of tests you would conduct on a regular basis without doing the full next-gen sequencing. Whenever we do sequencing, we want to make sure we’re doing the other necessary battery of tests for that food ingredient. Bio-Rad has expertise in all these areas, and they’re looking at other ways to advance their testing technology into the genomic space. That is the goal: To come up with a scientific understanding that allows us to have tests, analysis and algorithms, etc. that would allow the food industry to monitor on a regular basis.