Should you be responsible for the safety of your food? The article, Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers, in the New York Times is scary. The fundamental point is that it’s extremely difficult for companies that make ready-made frozen meals to verify the safety of their food because the supply chains have gotten so complex and they cannot track the provenance of the ingredients. Furthermore, the manufactures have resisted putting in place tracking systems. From the article:
But government efforts to impose tougher trace-back requirements for ingredients have met with resistance from food industry groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which complained to the Food and Drug Administration: “This information is not reasonably needed and it is often not practical or possible to provide it.
Instead of instituting a track back mechanism, the manufactures are trying to get consumers to ensure they cook their meals safe, reaching a “kill-step” where bacteria is destroyed. However, as discussed in the article this is actually very hard to do for some meals.
Personally, I’m going to lay off ready made meals, which is unfortunate because they do come in handy. Generally, I want to know about provenance even if I can destroy all the bacteria with a smoking microwave. Additionally, I wonder how we can get the computer science research products we have been doing in the CS Provenance Community into the hands of these manufacturers. I really believe the collecting and managing the kind of the documentation they need can be significantly cheaper and more effective than they expect using our technology.
Check out further discussion at the New York Times’ Room For Debate blog.
I just came back from an Issues in Focus talk at RAND in Santa Monica about whether the United States is losing its edge in science and technology. You can read the full report by Titus Galama and James Hosek, here. But to sum it up very succinctly, the answer is no. The US is still extremely competitive and looks to remain that way according to their research. Obviously, there’s much to be debated about this topic and they weren’t as blunt in their assessment as my one word summary. However, instead of focusing on their research (which their report summarizes well), I want to focus on a question that came up several times from the audience: is there more current data?
Many of the graphs that Dr. Galama showed during his talk were compelling but they were plotted over time and roughly ended between 2001 and 2005. This is not because of some omission on Dr. Galama and Hosek’s part, it is because the data was just not available. They mentioned this several times in response to the audience questions. Talking to Dr. Galama after the Q&A, it was clear that he wants the most current data possible. Indeed, a recommendation from their report is all about obtaining data now:
Establish a permanent commitment to a funded, chartered entity responsible for periodically monitoring, critically reviewing, and analyzing U.S. S&T performance and the condition of the S&E workforce.
They essentially recommend an organization whose whole responsibility is to get good current data and synthesize it. However, the establishment of such an organization takes time and indeed may never happen. What should researchers do in the meantime? I believe the solution lies in taking advantage of the web. In particular, as the web becomes increasingly current (i.e. this blog post, tweets, etc.) and increasingly structured (RDFa, YQL, Linked Data) the kind of data that Dr. Galama needs will be available. The key then is making it accessible for synthesis. Once that (non-trivial) problem is solved and Dr. Galama can use an up to the moment graph in his talk, then the audience question will change from “Is there more current data?” to “Where did that data come from?”.