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IBM reveals new system that helps improve the response to contaminated food outbreaks

IBM has developed a new and innovative system that crunches data and provides analytics in order to help public health officials better respond to a contaminated food incident.

Should a contaminated food source and ensuing outbreak of some illness rear its ugly head, the system will use algorithms and statistics crunching to whittle down supermarket food items to those with a high probability of causing the issue. Therefore any response will be that much quicker, with any luck helping to stop the spread of any disease faster.

The system apparently combines petabytes of data drawn from retailers' inventory systems (such as location and sell-by-date) with public health case reports to work its data crunching magic. It allows investigators to see the distribution of suspect foods, and review relevant public health reports from the area – and it boasts an algorithm which learns from every new report that comes in, and readjusts the probability of which food source is to blame on the fly.

IBM claims that it could reduce the time taken to identify a contaminated source by at least a number of days, if not weeks.

James Kaufman, Manager of Public Health Research for IBM Research, commented: "Predictive analytics based on location, content, and context are driving our ability to quickly discover hidden patterns and relationships from diverse public health and retail data. We are working with our public health clients and with retailers in the US to scale this research prototype and begin focusing on the 1.7B supermarket items sold each week in the United States."

The system had its effectiveness demonstrated in a test which IBM carried out in conjunction with the Department of Biological Safety of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which simulated 60,000 outbreaks of food-borne diseases across 600 products using real-world German food sales data.

Dr Bernd Appel, Head of the Department Biological Safety, BfR, noted: "The success of an outbreak investigation often depends on the willingness of private sector stakeholders to collaborate pro-actively with public health officials. This research illustrates an approach to create significant improvements without the need for any regulatory changes. This can be achieved by combining innovative software technology with already existing data and the willingness to share this information in crisis situations between private and public sector organisations."