By Amanda Garris

When Charles Bashiru Bakin conducted food safety audits of small businesses as a regulatory officer for Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority, he learned firsthand one of the core dilemmas in food safety: Where do you start, and why?

“Food safety decisions tend to be really complex, because food safety is a big issue,” says Bakin. “How to make these decisions is often a bit challenging. Where do you allocate resources, finances, and personnel?”

He also glimpsed a possible solution in the large amounts of data collected by regulatory agencies during inspections, investigations of consumer complaints, and food safety surveillance activities. He wondered if these data could be leveraged to identify priority steps in the food system where better practices would have the greatest impact.

“Data is constantly being generated from the food system,” says Bakin. “I wanted to know how we can engage in the analysis of all this data to provide an information basis on which food safety regulatory agencies or food companies can make decisions.”

Today, Bakin is a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University (OSU) and helping to implement a data-driven approach to reducing foodborne pathogens in poultry raised by female and youth farmers in Kenya. In the Chakula Salama project—which means “safe food” in Kiswahili—researchers at OSU, the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and the University of Nairobi are using data analytics and risk analysis to reduce foodborne illness in this dietary staple. Because of the demographics of small-scale poultry production, the project is also poised to support entrepreneurship among women.

“Poultry farming is quite big in Kenya, and very often it’s women who are engaged in poultry farming, because of the quick turnaround,” he says. “You find that a lot of women pick it up as a source of income.”

The farmers in Kenya face the same food safety challenges that impact poultry farmers around the world. Threats include Salmonella, which is the leading cause of death from foodborne disease in Africa, and Campylobacter, considered to be the most common bacterial cause of human gastroenteritis. Bakin and colleagues hope that by helping farmers strengthen food safety practices, they can prevent those illnesses and empower female farmers as food-safety champions and entrepreneurs. And although Bakin finds himself with the same question—where to start— this time, the data is leading the way.

The first step is assessing the prevalence of foodborne pathogens that are occurring with farmers’ existing practices, a project for the team this summer and fall. After the implementation of risk-based interventions which were selected collaboratively during a three-day risk-ranking workshop with producers and researchers, the assessment will be repeated to determine how effective the interventions are.

“Basically, if the interventions are effective, we will see a decline in the prevalence and the concentrations of these pathogens in the poultry,” says Bakin.

Effective data-driven food safety practices and policies will position the work to be scaled up in other locales. In addition to this focus on food safety on small farms, Bakin will be using data to understand the level of risk across Kenya’s poultry production, processing, transport, and marketing networks to locate the key contamination points affecting consumers’ risk of foodborne disease.

“We will conduct a risk assessment to estimate the risk associated with the consumption of food,” he says. “For example, anytime you eat unsafe food, you could either fall sick, and if you fall sick, you might just have some minor abdominal pain or throw up, or in the worst-case scenario, you could end up in a hospital or die as a result.”

“We are using mathematical models to assess risk across the entire value chain of food products, from farm to fork,” he explains. “We are modeling what the outcomes would be in terms of microbial growth, or microbial inactivation along this process, including steps like cold chain and transportation to markets. With risk assessment, we can answer the question, if you could implement an intervention along the value chain, where would it have the most impact?”

Amanda Garris is a communications specialist with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.