Why is it so difficult to trace the origins of food poisoning outbreaks?

As illustrated by the E. coli outbreak in Germany in 2011, any delay in identifying the source of food poisoning outbreaks can cost lives and cause considerable political and economical damage. An international multidisciplinary team of scientists have shown that difficulties in finding the sources of contamination behind food poisoning cases are inevitable due to the increasing complexity of a global food traffic network where food products are constantly crossing country borders, generating a worldwide network.

As consumers we are used to seeing country of origin labels on certain foods, but what about on products with more than one ingredient?  A recent study by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland showed that 53 countries contributed to the ingredients of an ordinary “Chicken Kiev” in a Dublin restaurant. This diversity of sources is partly to blame for the failure to identify the sources of food poisoning outbreaks, and has lead to calls for international health agencies to initiate a system to monitor this ‘human food web.’  But just how complex is the human food web? What is its structure, can we quantify it, and what can we learn from it?

The complete International Agro-Food Trade Network in 1998

In the first study of its kind, published in the journal PLoS ONE, the scientists studied databases of food import and export to understand how ‘food fluxes’ generate a complicated worldwide network. They were led by Professor József Baranyi of the Institute of Food Research, which is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Using agro-food import-export data of UN databases and novel network analysis methods developed by the first author, Mária Ercsey-Ravasz and Zoltán Toroczkai, at the University of Notre Dame, the study charts out the worldwide food-transport network and show that it forms an amazingly complex transport web. With the help of network science methods they reveal that it has highly vulnerable hotspots and demonstrate that, without increased control, some of these are prime positions for making outbreak tracing difficult.

The research identifies a number of countries as being central to the network or holding particular influence due to the dynamics of the food traffic, and stricter regulation in monitoring food trade here could benefit the network globally. Countries that take in many ingredients, process these into products, and act as distribution hubs are of particular concern.

“We found that the current structure of international food trade effectively makes The Netherlands a combined melting pot and Lazy Susan, with the busiest link to Germany,” said Professor Baranyi. “This could explain why the tracing of the source suffered long delays in these countries in two serious outbreaks in 2011. This could be observed in both the E. coli outbreak in sprouts and the dioxin contamination in eggs.”

The backbone of the International Agro-Food Trade Network based on the 2007 dataset

The findings are supported by two types of analyses: one is based on the graph theoretical analysis of the structure of the international food trade network that allows the identification of the network core using the well- established “betweenness centrality” measures of nodes and edges for this purpose; the other is a measure based on the dynamics of the food-flow on the network, expressing to what extent a country is a “source” or a “sink”.

Given the demonstrated complexity of the human food web, this work also introduces and validates for the first time a rigorous, quantitative methodology to help with biotracing and identifying the sources of food poisoning outbreaks, a problem that is only expected to increase in its magnitude, complexity and impact, in the face of current globalization trends.

Reference: “Complexity of the International Agro-Food Trade Network and Its Impact on Food Safety” was published in PLoS ONE 31st May 2012 http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037810

Contacts:

IFR Press Office:

Andrew Chapple, andrew.chapple@ifr.ac.uk 01603 251490

Zoe Dunford, zoe.dunford@ifr.ac.uk, 01603 255111

About the Institute of Food Research

  • The mission of the Institute of Food Research, www.ifr.ac.uk, is to undertake international quality scientific research relevant to food and human health and to work in partnership with others to provide underpinning science for consumers, policy makers, the food industry and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status.
  • IFR is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. IFR received a total of £13.4M investment from BBSRC in 2010-11.
  • The institutes deliver innovative, world class bioscience research and training, leading to wealth and job creation, generating high returns for the UK economy. They have strong links with business, industry and the wider community, and support policy development
  • The institutes’ research underpins key sectors of the UK economy such as agriculture, bioenergy, biotechnology, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. In addition, the institutes maintain unique research facilities of national importance.

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