FDA Uses Web Tool to Better the Odds for Food Safety

By: Ted Elkin

When most people hear the words, “Monte Carlo,” they may think about high-stakes gambling.

We, however, think about reducing the risk in food safety through the use of FDA-iRISK, an innovative Web-based food safety modeling tool developed by the Food and Drug Administration and our partners.

Launched in October 2012, FDA-iRISK uses mathematical logic and Monte Carlo simulation (a computer program named for the gambling mecca) to integrate data and generate results that compare and rank risks of the contamination of foods by various hazards.  Unlike a traditional risk assessment of a single food and a single contaminant, FDA-iRISK allows users to compare multiple hazards – microbial or chemical – in multiple foods.

How does FDA-iRISK work?

Through extensive outreach to and collaboration with partners, we developed built-in templates and other features that allow the user to create real-world (or hypothetical) food safety scenarios.

The user provides the data for seven elements: the food(s), the hazard(s), the population of concern (for instance, elderly or immune-compromised), the production or processing system being used for the food, the consumption patterns, the dose response (what level of exposure will have a health impact), and how the health effects are to be calculated.

This allows the user flexibility, for instance, to look at the impact of potential interventions at various stages of the food production system as well as the populations affected.  And it’s easy to use.

Of particular benefit to the user is FDA-iRISK’s ability to generate reports that measure the health impact of an intervention in terms of the widely used public health metric, DALYs (“Disability-Adjusted Life Years,” meaning years of healthy life lost to illness or death).  This measure lets us know the “bang for the buck” of a particular intervention.

FDA-iRISK is quickly gaining acceptance and use in the food safety community.  As of the middle of May, almost 500 users had established accounts with FDA-iRISK and they came from every continent. Because it is web-based, FDA-iRISK is available to anyone in the world who sets up an account, and it is free to use.

Therefore, the knowledge and sharing power of FDA-iRISK is exponential.  As more users use it and generate reports that are then available to the other users, a more consistent, well documented, systematic, structured and quantitative picture of risk in the food supply will emerge, as well as scenarios for reducing risk.

“Information provided by iRisk can aid in developing global scientific exchanges aimed at maintaining and developing agricultural markets around the world,” according to Jamilah (Fagbene) Cassagnol, an international trade specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

FDA-iRisk is supported by an exceptional project team. FDA staff members Sherri Dennis, Yuhuan Chen, David Oryang, Regis Pouillot, Karin Hoelzer and Susan Cahill developed the tool in collaboration with Risk Sciences International, RTI International and the Institute of Food Technologists.

Ultimately, for food safety, Monte Carlo shouldn’t mean taking a gamble.  Rather, it’s all about using a quantified, standardized and transparent methodology to better understand what interventions and controls will reduce the risk and improve our public health.

Ted Elkin is Director, Office of Analytics and Outreach, at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.