Protecting the Food Supply


In 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security established the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), headquartered at the University of Minnesota. This research consortium, which includes researchers from over 30 other universities, addresses the vulnerability of the nation’s food supply to attack. The NCFPD’s research and education mission is to reduce the potential for contamination of the food supply and to mitigate the potentially catastrophic public-health and economic effects of such an event. Dr. Amy Kircher, who has been working with MSI on the projects described below, was recently appointed Director of the NCFPD.

One threat to the food supply is called “economically motivated adulteration” or EMA. This type of food adulteration, in which less-expensive products are added to or substituted for higher-priced food in order to increase profits, has occurred for centuries. Recent examples from the news include the selling of horsemeat as beef in Europe, and, in China, adding melamine as an extender to milk and wheat gluten. The NCFPD is working to better understand the food supply, identify high-risk supplies, and do real-time analysis using a variety of data.

One of the agencies with which NCFDP works is U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which monitors shipments of food into the U.S. MSI was contacted by NCFPD to develop tools that they could use to store and analyze this data. This project, which was completed earlier this year, included:

  • A database to store the CBP data and a tool to automatically import new data.

  • A private web interface that allows NCFPD researchers to select and perform statistical analyses on selected datasets using their own algorithms. The interface generates plots and other summaries.

  • Visualizations of imported food using the Google Maps API. Researchers can select countries and food products to see what is entering the country. They can view entry to specific ports or the view can show a single connection to the country exporting the food with a line thickness proportional to the weight of the imported food. The graphic above shows importation information for apples.

MSI is also providing hosting services for the application. MSI is also currently working with the NCFPD on a further project to extend these tools and capabilities. 

These projects are part of an MSI program that provides long-term, at-cost, individualized support for projects meeting certain criteria. Information can be found on the MSI website.

Posted on September 25, 2013.

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