The recent horse meat scandal and food poisoning outbreaks such as the E. coli infections in 2011 have put the food supply chain into the spotlight. How did horse meat end up undetected in so many different places? Why were Spanish cucumbers initially blamed for the E. coli outbreak in Germany, before Egyptian fenugreek seeds were identified as the likely cause?
The answers lie in the complexity of the food supply chain, which isn’t so much a chain as an interwoven network where food and ingredients travel the globe, are made into a plethora of different foods and then move around again to finally reach consumers.
To help explain the complexity of the system, the Institute of Food Research has teamed up with travelling arts emporium ME AND ER to create a giant interactive display and art installation. This will be unveiled at The Big Bang Fair, the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK.
Alison Atkins and Cordelia Spalding, the artists behind ME AND ER, are creating a giant 3m high interactive representation of the food network that sits behind the humble pizza. Visitors will be given a passport and invited to explore the network, tracing the routes taken by different ingredients to get to the pizza. But they had better watch out in case Salmonella strikes – how quickly can they and the scientists pin down the exact source of the outbreak? There will also be lots of hands on ways to get inside network science and understand its power to make sense of the complicated world around us.
Network science enables us to describe and analyse relationships be they social networks like Facebook & Twitter, transport networks like trains or the London Underground or mobile telephone networks.
In the case of these global food networks we would be interested in the flow of various foods moving on the transport network. Analysis of the network allows us to determine the major ‘hubs’ of commerce e.g. ports or food processing regions where, if food became contaminated, it would pose a major threat to public health.
Professor József Baranyi from IFR has been involved in analysing and modelling the international food trade network to get an overall picture of its structure. By using network science, it is possible to identify critical points in the system where for example tracing a possible outbreak is difficult. This could enable the food industry and policy-makers to allocate resources to control or support those nodes and edges to which the whole network is the most sensitive therefore would result in the most significant overall improvement in food distribution, waste and safety.
The Big Bang Fair takes place 14-17 March in Excel, London. Over 60,000 schoolchildren from all over the UK are expected to visit. You can visit IFR in the Farm to Fork Zone, Stand FA3
More about networks:
Networks let us to describe and analyse relationships such as transport networks.
This is usually done in the form of a graph showing the network structure (which looks a lot like a flowchart) which often has information added to it. For example, it might be the length of road between two places. On a network representation of a road system , the cities would be called nodes or vertices and the connecting roads would be called links, arcs or edges.
This example shows a simple network of roads between Norwich, Thetford and Diss.
Norwich-Thetford node: 28 miles
Thetford-Diss node: 16 miles
Diss-Norwich node: 21 miles
On a larger scale, network scientists have used agro-food import-export data of UN databases and novel network analysis methods to describe the worldwide food-transport network. 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.