Optimizing Personal and Public Health

Food delivery apps, diet tracking platforms, and health databases are making it easier than ever for Americans to improve their eating habits and overall health.47 This is an important development in the U.S., where nearly 40% of the population suffers from obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many of these apps utilize AI, including the wellness app Noom, which collects and analyzes users’ exercise logs and food intake data to provide them with personalized health, diet, and fitness advice.

New tools are being developed in response to the conditions that lead to approximately one in six Americans48 experiencing food poisoning each year. Once an outbreak occurs, pinpointing the source is an extraordinarily difficult task,49 but some businesses are relying on Agrisource Data’s AI-powered AgClarity Analytics platform and other new tools to track food quality, safety, and freshness throughout the complex food supply chain.

Perhaps more surprisingly, crowdsourcing platforms like Yelp are proving to be fertile grounds for researchers addressing food safety. A team at Columbia University50 recently developed an AI tool that analyzes user reviews in order to contain the spread of foodborne illness outbreaks. The New York City Health Department is using it to track and identify51 the source(s) of contaminated food, even shutting down restaurants that repeatedly fail health inspections.

Using Twitter instead of Yelp, researchers at the University of Rochester developed nEmesis to tell users where it’s unsafe to eat. This AI’s natural language processing program can read tweets and geotag the location of restaurants associated with food poisoning-related posts. So far, the system is responsible for an estimated 9,000 fewer food poisoning incidents and 557 fewer hospitalizations.52

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Don Bustos

“Technology plays a key role in being able to organize everyone… The whole community needs to be part of the learning”

Bustos farms near the edge of the Sonoran desert, on acres his ancestors have tilled for centuries. On his farm, you can find farmers’ market staples like blackberries, asparagus, lettuce, as well as less-humble offerings like heirloom chili peppers and bok choy. Bustos says he relies on “market espionage” to pick his offerings, growing the opposite of whatever’s en vogue among neighbors.

His oppositional approach seems to come from the ground up. After all, he grows food in a desert region. But Bustos has been able to thrive by relying on techniques that his family has passed down for generations.

Key to the success of Bustos’ regional food system is a time-honored, gravity-propelled communal irrigation water system called Acequias, which has evolved over 10,000 years. The practice was first developed by the Romans, taught to the Moors, and brought to the Americas over 400 years ago. The governing of Acequias is done by community vote, “a horizontal effort, not a top-down approach,” he says.

In an era when greenhouse sensors are able to communicate with smartphone apps, Bustos’ farm exemplifies the value of old-fashioned, human connections. In Northern New Mexico, Bustos doesn’t have the benefit of high-speed internet. But what he does have is priceless: a community of farmers who see the value in conserving their water resources for future generations.

Bustos organizes farmers in this region, teaching them everything from business planning to soil fertility so they can square away enough money to send their kids to college. He also helped launch the Agri-Cultura Network, a group of 13 farmers who aggregate their harvests to supply customers at farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and Albuquerque’s public schools. In 2015, he won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for his longstanding service to the local community.

“Technology plays a key role in being able to organize everyone,” he says. But it was through storytelling and community knowledge that he learned how to farm—specifically, by listening to stories told by his grandma and grandpa. “The whole community needs to be part of the learning,” he says.

Researchers at Purdue University53 have also developed a tool for smartphones that can analyze produce for foodborne pathogens like the E.coli that was recently found in romaine lettuce. On-the-spot detection tools could prove incredibly useful on a farm or in a food processing factory and prevent the kind of wide-scale outbreaks that can send hundreds or even thousands to emergency rooms. By training algorithms to provide support at every step along the food chain, we can ensure that healthy food is not only easy to grow and to buy, but also safe to eat.

New tech tools will undoubtedly benefit the greater public good if they can make the complex food supply chain more transparent. People want to know where their food comes from, and busy consumers often don’t have the time or energy to investigate all of the necessary data about their food.

  1. Sylvan Charlebois, “How blockchain technology could transform the food industry,” TheConversation.com, December 19th, 2017.
  2. The NIH estimates that roughly half of all smart phone users have downloaded a health-related app. Dustin T. Duncan and Paul Krebs, “Health app use among US mobile phone owners: A national survey,” JMIR Mhealth Uhealth, volume 3, number 4, October–December 2015.
  3. FDA, “Food safety: It’s especially important for at-risk groups,” Fda.gov, November 8, 2017.
  4. Laura A. Bettencourt, “A complex mystery: Finding the sources of foodborne disease outbreaks,” FoodSafety.gov, March 30, 2010.
  5. “NYC health department identifies 10 outbreaks of foodborne illness using Yelp reviews since 2012,” Columbia University Engineering press release, January 10, 2018.
  6. Barbara Feder Ostrov, “Can Yelp track outbreaks of food poisoning?” The Atlantic, October 22, 2015.
  7. “Fighting food poisoning in Las Vegas with machine learning,” National Science Foundation press release, March 7, 2016.
  8. “Technology turns smartphones into on-the-spot detectors for foodborne illnesses, other dangerous contaminants,” Purdue University press release, May 15, 2018.

Traceability & Food Safety

Scannable QR codes and blockchain technology offer faster ways of tracking products throughout the food supply chain. These systems make it easier to trace the source of foods and, in worst case scenarios, they can help to quickly identify the source of food contamination. Processes that used to take nearly a week can now be completed in a matter of seconds.