According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), food and water borne diseases kill an estimated 2.2 million people annually, most of the victims are children.
This death toll wreaks an unimaginable level of suffering and grief. It also has serious economic implications. In Europe, for example, the WHO estimates there are 1.2 million cases of foodborne diseases reported annually, leading to 350,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths. The estimated economic cost to Europe is €117 billion annually.
To help alleviate the problem, the Global Food Safety Partnership is a unique public-private initiative dedicated to improving the safety of food in middle-income and developing countries. It combines food safety training and technical support to help member countries improve their food safety systems and benefit from better compliance with food safety standards.
However, the organisation sees that open data needs to be better used in the battle against food and water poisoning. While improving skills, knowledge, and resources does help in food safety, digital records are needed to trace food and ensure compliance standards are met throughout the food chain.
Yet the data question has not yet been fully addressed and there remain holes in the information available. This is a problem hampering scientists and public health specialists who aim to curb risks and confidently deliver food and drinking water safety.
A specialist team at AgroKnow, a GODAN partner focusing on capturing, organising and adding value to information available in agricultural and food sciences, is attempting to quantify the problem surrounding open data. Their aim is to make relevant datasets universally accessible, useful and meaningful in the fight against food and water borne disease.
They address the problem recognised by the WHO in a report entitled, ‘The efficient sharing and discovery of foodborne diseases information’, in which they first identify the problem, “We cannot take full advantage of all the existing data on foodborne diseases. This is mainly because data tends to be unstructured, is kept in internal databases or is stored in customised formats which cannot be easily shared in an interoperable way.”
The report, authored by Giannis Stoitsis, Nikos Marianos and Nikos Manouselis, senior staffers at AgroKnow, point to the solution. They see the need to discover an efficient data recovery system that creates shareable information about foodborne diseases that generates food alerts and can recall outbreaks from a diverse range of sources.
But they explain this is only possible if all the relevant authorities agree to combine common semantic vocabulary and permit the use of text mining tools geared to extract structured data from trusted web sources containing information about foodborne diseases and previous outbreaks.
The team who set up Agroknow in 2008 have since grown their expertise over the years to include agronomists, web designers, information scientists, software engineers and web developers capable of providing integrated solutions. Today, Agroknow is an active contributor in European and international standardisation initiatives linked to agricultural data representation and storage.
Stoitsis, Marianos and Manouselis in their report explain why we are facing an increasing tide of food borne diseases, “Cultural and demographic factors, as well as increased mobility have resulted in major epidemiologic shifts in foodborne disease during recent decades.”
They continue, “Previous outbreaks of foodborne disease were smaller and limited in scope and more often originated in the home. Nowadays, many more people dine outside the home and travel more extensively. As a result, more than 80% of foodborne disease cases occur from exposures outside the home.”
As a result, the authors call for greater international collaboration, increased use of information technologies and data sharing to meet the challenge.
Meanwhile, the Global Food Safety Partnership is addressing the issues raised in the AgroKnow report. It has established a Knowledge and Learning Systems Working Group. Members of the group represent countries from across the globe and develop recommendations for design and implementation of open solutions.
This includes collecting research to understand the factors required to adopt up-to-date food safety standards and behaviours. Its members have also set about analysing potential business models for open source and open content support for food safety.
In turn, this new focus by the Global Food Safety Partnership and others, opens up a world of new economic opportunities for food producers, food processors, and other agrifood businesses in developing countries. It means more companies and farmers can participate in the global food value chain, confident that their food is safe to eat.