LINCOLN — Food safety regulations already mandate that companies in the food industry check daily for contaminants. But in the age of “big data,” a couple of University of Nebraska-Lincoln food safety researchers say merely logging the information on a spreadsheet isn't good enough.
Tracking microbial data over time and using that data in a meaningful way — to prevent illness and improve health — has been the missing link in food safety programs, said Harsha Thippareddi, an associate professor of food science and technology at UNL.
“We've never used that data to see what is really going on,” he said.
That's why they've collaborated with a local programmer to create Presage Analytics, a startup with software that can archive, analyze and visualize food safety data and its location within a processing plant.
Perhaps most significant, the software can monitor trends and could isolate and contain food safety issues such as recalls and foodborne illnesses. It could potentially have spotted and slowed the spread of the parasitic illness cyclospora, which last month sickened about 240 people across Nebraska and Iowa.
Already, the company has been working with a local poultry processing company as its beta customer, and it has marketed the software at a trade show on microbiology and food safety. While there have been a couple of new products released in the last year that are similar to Presage's software, the idea of proactively, rather than reactively, addressing food safety through tracking data is new.
Jeyam Subbiah, who is an associate professor of biological systems engineering and food science and technology at UNL, said that with the signing of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act two years ago, food safety has been more in focus.
The law ramped up federal inspection efforts and preventive control requirements for farmers and food manufacturers and put even more scrutiny on the food industry to track the safety of food products made here and imported.
With Presage's software, food companies are “testing the integrity of the process” rather than the end product, which makes people sick, Thippareddi said.
The cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. is about $77.7 billion annually, according to Ohio State University researcher Robert Scharff, whose work was published in 2012 in the Journal of Food Protection. About 48 million people are affected by foodborne illness in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Think of Presage's software like this:
A food company collects lettuce from 1,000 farms and each of those farms samples a number of processes throughout the growing season, from the irrigation water to the water used to wash the lettuce. If the lettuce passes the safety test, it's collected and mixed at a plant. There, the company runs a number of tests conducted by humans who may swab one part of the processing plant and get a test result that says the lettuce is safe. Swab another part of the plant, and it may be unfit.
Presage's software, Subbiah said, randomizes samples and asks technicians to test different areas of the processing plant. In many cases, one area of equipment has microbial growth, while another area is completely clean. The software also can note at exactly what time the sample was taken and other details that aren't available when manually logged in a spreadsheet.
The software then takes the data and transforms it in a visual way, revealing details difficult to spot while reading a spreadsheet. Subbiah said data on a spreadsheet stored in a filing cabinet or folder on someone's computer desktop rarely do any good and having the ability to look at what point the company's production facility is failing and spot positive, or “out of bounds,” samples is key.
“You can animate (the data) in a minute, like a weather map,” Subbiah said.
That's especially helpful over a long period of time, Thippareddi said, because once a positive sample pops up, the user can see how many positive samples have shown up in the same spot in the past. And they can get the information “in the click of a button,” he said.
Thippareddi had the idea for some kind of system to track and detect food safety issues for years, but it wasn't until he joined academia and met Subbiah that he acted on it. The researchers — Thippareddi researches areas such as intervention technologies for the food industry to control foodborne pathogens, and Subbiah looks at developing imaging technologies for food quality and safety applications — then caught the attention of NUtech Ventures, which supports the transfer of university inventions into the marketplace.
NUtech matched them with ISoft Data Systems, a Lincoln company at 2124 Y St. that works with inventory management, production management software and custom website design. NUtech also helped the company get $125,000 in development funds through a University Technology Development Corp. program with funding provided from the Nebraska Research Initiative.
Matthew Wegener, ISoft Data Systems president and CEO, said despite not having a background in microbiology or the food industry, he viewed the deal as an opportunity to expand his company into an entirely new industry. Wegener was named president of Presage, and Thippareddi and Subbiah serve as advisers and on its board of directors.
Thippareddi said he hopes the software is used extensively and helps companies identify safety issues sooner to avoid paying financially for the consequences of an outbreak.
“If they can use our software as a means for that,” he said, “that's incredible.”