Food In Canada

Big data

Food in Canada   

Business Operations Food Safety

Is big data is the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity?

According to Wikipedia, “Big data is a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate…The term often refers simply to the use of predictive analytics or other advanced methods to extract value from data….” IBM’s website says (paraphrased), “Big data is the ability to take data generated everywhere around us at all times from systems, sensors, social media and to extract meaningful value from it.”


Why the hype?

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, big data is “the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity.” Software companies such as IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and SAP, retailers like Walmart, food processors like ConAgra Foods, and the U.S. government have invested and continue to invest billions to develop big data capability.



The collection and analysis of data are collectively referred to as “data analytics.” To get the most out of data analytics, one has to have what big data users call the “five Vs.”


  1. Volume or quantity of data; more is better.
  2. Variety of data sources.
  3. Velocity or speed at which data is acquired is important – the faster, the better.
  4. Variability in data, in this case, variability can help and sometimes hinders analysis.
  5. Veracity or the quality or the reliability of the data is important – no surprise.


Add to the above the need to quickly analyze the constant tsunami of data so you can be in position to anticipate the next opportunity. Let’s not forget the other things such as computers, software, enormous data storage capacity (exabytes) and qualified data analysts.

Big data and food safety

There are many ways that food safety can benefit from big data. Here are some examples:

  1. Risk analysis: Data is the foundation of risk analysis. Data analytics on combined data from food processors about production and distribution, social media, public health reports on foodborne illnesses, economic impact studies on outbreaks, and geographical information systems will help us develop better risk assessment models.
  2. Risk mitigation: Geographical information systems technology can provide data for predicting hazards that can be traced to a variety of causes. For example, the contamination of fresh produce may be due to environmental factors such as storms.
  3. Mining health care data: Governments and insurance companies are using big data analytics to find billions of dollars in savings through cost and risk reduction.
  4. Monitor consumer patterns: Knowing what consumers are doing and why they are behaving in a particular way. For example, knowing that consumers are avoiding a certain food involved in an outbreak is an indication that the recall was effective.
  5. Whole genome sequencing and metagenomics: Scientists are actively compiling genetic sequence data on thousands of micro-organisms, most of which are implicated in food-borne outbreaks. Microbial genetic data is also being accumulated on bacteria found along the entire food supply chain. As this vast body of information grows, data analytics will help scientists to rapidly identify the cause as well as the source of an outbreak.


Roadblocks to big data

There are a number of things that are impeding our industries’ ability to benefit from big data, including: reliance on paper to collect data; confidentiality concerns – sharing what is considered proprietary data can be risky but there are ways to protect data; security concerns – electronic databases can be vulnerable to hackers, but there are ways to protect against this; lack of qualified IT people; lack of capital resources; lack of management vision; and historic lack of leadership and support from federal and provincial regulatory agencies.


The benefits of greater operational efficiency, improved food safety and a better bottom line are great motivators, and I am confident that the roadblocks will be overcome in the not-too-distant future. The benefits of whole genome sequencing and metagenomics will soon overtake more traditional phenotypic methods for pathogen testing. I’ll have more to say about this in my next article.


Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at

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