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SAP big data DNA initiative to tackle sustainability

The Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) is now in operation as the UK's first professional body for people working in sustainability and corporate responsibility (CR).

So sustainability's got its own official association. This is a move that, despite the scepticism voiced by some, is expected to further push the issue into the boardroom. In the food industry, big data can be used to combat problems with product substitution, explained David Jonker, senior director, big data initiatives, SAP.

"There is a ton of substitution that happens within the food industry and retailers don't know it," he said.

"Anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of all sea food, you think you're eating one thing, and in fact you're actually eating something different."

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Food fraud constitutes a brand problem for companies involved – knowingly or unknowingly. The 2013 "Horsegate" scandal shook consumer confidence in Tesco, ASDA and other UK supermarkets due to the discovery of horsemeat in beef products. In May, British confectioner Cadbury found itself in the spotlight when its products tested positive for pork traces in Malaysia, upsetting the country's Muslim population.

Big data could give brands much-needed clarity on this issue though. The International Barcode of Life project aims to build a worldwide database of DNA, using the SAP HANA cloud platform to collect and analyse data. Through the LifeScanner mobile app, everyday smartphone users and nature enthusiasts can collect DNA from a species and send off the sample to a laboratory for testing, through the SAP University Alliances initiative.

Read more: How the cloud supports green IT computing

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With the ability to test products and compare DNA directly with global cloud data, brands should be able to identify substituted products before they hit the shelves. Existing solutions mostly track the package, not what's inside.

"We're enabling them to go and say to their supply chain, when I ask for cod, I expect you to give me cod, and to make sure you give me cod we're going to test the cod that you send," Jonker explained.

The technology also allows brands to identify cases of overfishing, and enforce sanctions that remove the banned species from their supply chains. As sustainability becomes an increasingly important aspect of firms' PR message, disassociation with such practices will no doubt become crucial to many brands. Though it's arguably this fear of their own Horsegate that will motivate company change, not genuine environmental concern.

Images: Barry Lewis, Flickr; Niall Kennedy, Flickr.