Joining Forces for Food Safety

While the imperative to “buy local” has gained considerable traction over the past decade, the truth is that many of our food products are still largely imported, including more than 80% of seafood, 50% of fresh fruits, and 20% of vegetables. Those imports are subject to varying degrees of quality control in their home countries, and the US Food and Drug Administration can only test a small fraction for contaminants without bringing commercial activity to a grinding halt.

Predictive risk models, therefore, are necessary to efficiently protect food supply chains—and three years ago, the FDA turned to researchers at both the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation (CBI) to improve its risk management system. Now, this team—which also received funding from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS)—has joined forces with the Walmart Foundation for a multimillion-dollar, multiyear collaboration in China, the world’s third-largest food exporter.

According to Sloan faculty member and principal investigator Retsef Levi, who is the J. Spencer Standish Professor of Operations Management, the project aims for a detailed understanding of the structure and dynamics of supply chains and the way they are regulated—“and we’re going to complement it with new concepts of how to test food.” This multipronged approach—predicting which contaminants are most likely to be found in which product categories and firms, and then creating more robust testing for a wider swath of those contaminants—will change the economics of managing adulteration risks in food supply chains. It is abetted by the broad academic backgrounds of the researchers.

In the words of CBI faculty director Anthony Sinskey ScD ’67, a professor of microbiology and health sciences and technology and a principal investigator on the project, “We are bringing an interdisciplinary approach to this important issue with a convergence of business, analytics, supply chain, science, and engineering expertise from across campus. The ultimate goal is to revolutionize how risk is managed in food supply chains throughout the world.”