Researchers explore tainted food imports

Published On:
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Printer-friendly version

Produce imported to the United States from Mexico can be tainted with bacteria and disease, so associate professor William Nganje and his team at the Polytechnic campus have made it their priority to ensure food safety.  

A $247,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given Nganje and his researchers the opportunity to explore efficient ways to import safe foods and trace the chain of supply of the produce as it moves from Mexico to the United States.

Nganje said the grant money will be used to collect data and analyze it and travel to the locations of the food supply chain.

“When we are finished with this project, we want to ensure that we have trained experts in this field,” Nganje said. “We want people who can address this issue of food safety for the generations to come.” 

Industrial engineering graduate student Oscar Caballero said there have been a lot of contamination problems, the most recent being the salmonella outbreak in jalapeños and tomatoes last year.

Nganje said food can either be unintentionally or intentionally contaminated by terrorists.

“We have seen examples of both types of contamination, both in the United States and overseas,” Nganje said. “We are using our grant money to address both types and making sure that when contamination does occur, we can trace it back to the origin and contain reducing the economic loss.”

Nganje said his team will specifically use the money to purchase real-time or intelligent technology to track contamination of foods as they occur. Using these technological devices, the team can track the flow of the produce as it flows through the supply chain.

Caballero said many factors will go into the new intelligent technology.

“The basics of the system that we are using right now are based on determining if the cargo is going to be a risk using historical data, and it depends on the shipper, the exporter, the importer and the driver,” Caballero said.

“What we are proposing now is journey-based data, which gathers all information from the moment the truck leaves the exporter and the moment it arrives at the border,” he said.

Caballero said this could involve information like GPS location, in terms of measuring the amounts of stops the truck has made, temperature inside the container and vibration.

Paul Ragsdale, science adviser for international programs within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said ASU won an annual international grant competition.

“The reason we are interested in this program is because our chemical and biological division in food protection and defense is looking at ways to reduce the vulnerability of the supply chain,” Ragsdale said. “ASU is an obvious partner because of its strong ties to the Mexican border.”

Another reason the Department of Homeland Security is interested in the project is because the researchers are developing tools to improve the targeting of inspections for supply chain security. They are also developing approaches to protect the fresh produce.

Reach the reporter at allison.carlin@asu.edu.