Complexity of international trade in food raises risk from delay in tracing contamination

A recent peer-reviewed paper from scientists in the US, Romania, Hungary and the UK seeks to describe the international agro-food trade network (IFTN) and shows that its complexity risks making it difficult to trace the source in case of an outbreak of large scale food poisoning caused by a contaminated food ingredient.

The paper demonstrates that “The latest deadly food poisoning outbreaks in 2011 (Escherichia coli in Germany, for which it took three weeks to trace the source, and Listeria monocytogenes from cantaloupes in the US) and their economic, political and social effects clearly illustrated the importance of prompt tracing of the origin of specific food ingredients. This task is placing a huge pressure on regulation and surveillance.”

From data provided by the UN, the authors have developed a model illustrating the international agro-food trade network. According to the model, the top three country pairs in terms of risk of large scale contamination are:

  • food in Germany that is imported from the Netherlands
  • food in Japan that is imported from the USA
  • food in the USA that is imported from Canada

These are theoretical risks based on food trading between countries and do not represent measured food safety performance. The point is that better monitoring, understanding, and control of food trade flows would:

  • contribute to protection against outbreaks and intentional attacks;
  • help devise better traceability methods and thus increase consumer confidence;
  • allow for a better distribution of food and thus reduction of wastage, estimated to be about 30 – 40% globally;
  • increase the reliability and stability of supply systems; and
  • help decrease the environmental burden of food production and distribution logistics.

The authors state that “Such an interdisciplinary approach is entirely within the means of the state-of-the art of science and technology, if supported by detailed and systematic data collection. The role of state and interstate organizations (e.g. EU, UN) is essential in this. Although much of the food commerce and trade happens through the private sector, information collection and sharing should be incentivized to generate the data needed for an in-depth knowledge of the structure and dynamics of the IFTN, to ensure the safety and security of the global food system.”

Ercsey-Ravasz M, Toroczkai Z, Lakner Z, Baranyi J (2012) Complexity of the International Agro-Food Trade Network and Its Impact on Food Safety. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37810. The article can be found at

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