The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn new attention to the safety of the global food supply. Early reports suggested that SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes this disease, may have begun its deadly spread from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. While we may never know the true origin of the disease, scientists agree that markets that sell fresh meat and fish create the ideal conditions for viruses to jump from animals to humans, and to spread from humans to other humans. The 2002 SARS outbreak began at a similar market in China. Viruses are just one of many potential threats along the food chain that leads from farm to market to table. Those threats have proven deadly. In 2008, milk and infant formula tainted with the chemical melamine sent more than 50,000 Chinese babies to the hospital, killing six. An outbreak of the food-borne bacterium Listeria caused nearly 200 deaths in South Africa between 2017 and 2018. A strain of E. coli bacteria traced back to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona, sickened hundreds of people across 36 US states in 2018.
In summer 2020, the MIT Sloan School of Management launched a new initiative to help keep our food safe: the Food Supply Chain Analytics and Sensing Initiative (FSAS). “This is a global challenge with relevance to every country on the planet,” says Retsef Levi, the J. Spencer Standish Professor of Operations Management and faculty director of FSAS. “Food and agriculture supply chains have major and multifaceted impact on human health and pose major challenges to governments and industry across the globe. We hope that our multidisciplinary work can help inform policies and industry practices and build better global food systems.” FSAS will develop and disseminate new analytical tools that can assess and promote food safety around the world. “The ultimate goal is to revolutionize how risk is managed in food supply chains,” says Stacy Springs, executive director of FSAS. “To do that, we need to extract data, map supply chains, and create the automated tools that will help us identify the areas where the greatest risk resides.”
The multidisciplinary initiative involves faculty and graduate students from MIT’s School of Science and School of Engineering as well as MIT Sloan, and it will work in partnership with additional academic institutions, industry, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. There are three areas of work: management of food safety and adulteration risks; design and optimization of agricultural supply chains and markets; and issues of food access and food waste.
The agricultural supply chain study is of particular importance to developing countries, where agriculture is often the largest source of employment and where struggling farmers or merchants may be tempted to cheat on hygiene or even poison their produce. “If you don’t look after the welfare of food producers, you put them in a situation where bad practices and food fraud can occur,” Levi explains.
Solid research foundation
In 2013, Levi and Springs began work with the US Food and Drug Administration to develop predictive models for managing risks from the global food supply chain. The initial focus of this contract was on imports from China. FSAS members also received seed funding from the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab to work on research ranging from supply chain mapping to the development of bioassays for identifying unknown adulterants. Three years later, Levi, Springs, and Yasheng Huang, all principal investigators at FSAS, received a $7.5 million grant based on these earlier works to support a broad food-safety study in China. They then took a team of MIT faculty and students on a research trip to China in 2018. “The team’s first focus was on freshwater aquatic supply chains,” Springs says. “We met with many future collaborators, identified public data sources that could support the research, and visited several wholesale markets in Zhejiang province.” From there, Levi’s team set a course to mine much of the available food safety data, create structured databases, and build tools to automate that process.
MIT’s food safety work has since expanded with faculty and research in India, Indonesia, and Thailand. While the scope of FSAS is global, the initiative will tailor its approach to each region. “Food supply chains in China, for example, are even longer and more complex than they are in the United States,” explains Huang, who is also the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at MIT Sloan. “And unlike in the US, Chinese farms are extremely decentralized, with tens of millions of individual farmers. It is challenging to identify the best point along the chain to intervene.”
Although some data on food safety and adulteration in China is available to the public, the information is scattered across hundreds of different sites and publications. Analyzing these multiple sources and consolidating data on aquatic food chains led Huang and his colleagues to an important insight: Chinese wholesale markets were a key source of risk in that country’s food supply chain.
Unfortunately, that insight alone will not lead to greater food safety.
“We need to come up with measures for things we don’t typically measure,” says Huang, whose research centers on government regulations. “A measure for how transparent each local administration is about food safety issues. Or a measure that tells us how actively that local government enforces food safety. No one is measuring this sort of information. It’s up to academics to come up with new ways to harvest and analyze this data.”
Focus on farms
Along with creating and analyzing metrics on wholesale markets, FSAS will also create platforms to collect data from smallholders and family farms—the so-called “first mile” of the food supply chain, which provides more than 50% of the world’s calories. It’s a tough job. “We have very little information about this informal first mile,” says Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations management. “But most of the smallholders have mobile phones, allowing us to develop and leverage mobile-based platforms to help them make better decisions.”
De Zegher believes creating a digital platform for smallholders could augment food safety as well as promote sustainability. “Right now, if you’re sourcing from smallholder farms, it’s difficult to know where a specific product or lot comes from,” says de Zegher, who studies palm oil production in Indonesia. “With digital tools, we could trace the origins of a shipment.” Such work could provide food safety information and other benefits, such as determining whether the palm oil came from an area that was deforested illegally.
While enhancing food safety across the globe, FSAS also endeavors to help smallholder farmers thrive. “We and our partners are working to develop platforms that help inform farmers of best practices. The platforms will also create access to new markets for farmers,” says Yanchong Karen Zheng, the Sloan School Career Development Professor, associate professor of operations management, and an FSAS collaborator. “Right now, these farmers have very limited choices of where they can sell their produce.”