DARIN DETWILER, Dean of Graduate Academic and Faculty Affairs, Northeastern University, Boston, Mass.

Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, represents a city at the intersection of ancient values and modern solutions. City-centered skyscrapers that evoke futuristic scenes from sci-fi movies, along with renowned urban markets for spice and gold trade and port-side markets for imported fish and produce, stand in stark contrast to the endless deserts on the city’s outskirts.

The rapid growth in construction in Dubai reflects the impact of oil reserves on sudden wealth and population growth in the region. One obvious concern with this influx of people is where they will get their food. Given the geography of the region, most of the food in Dubai is imported.

However, access to food for this large, dense population is one issue for which Dubai seems to have found some solutions. According to the Dubai Municipality, the city imports approximately $200 billion of food from about 200 countries — also imported are the companies behind the meals. Dominating the malls and business districts are American restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Five Guys’ Burgers and Fries, Tony Roma’s, Chili’s, Wendy’s, and even Chuck E. Cheese’s. Signs for Uber Eats in English and Arabic show thankful customers looking toward the skies as if their problems of access have been solved. Additionally, motorcycle delivery of food peppers the main highways and side streets along the long, repetitive line of American brand restaurants at the bottom of tall buildings.

Food authenticity and safety are two other issues Dubai is working to tackle. Its solution is to use big data to protect its food. In November, Dubai leaders took a step to digitize food data to ensure better food safety and help consumers with their nutritional needs and preferences.

PREDICT, PREVENT, PROTECT. I was in the country to speak at the 2017 Dubai International Food Safety Conference. During the opening ceremonies, participants observed Director General of Dubai Municipality Hussain Nasser Lootah launch Food Watch — a digital platform that will completely digitalize food safety and nutritional information of all food items served through all 20,000 or more food establishments in the emirate.

The Dubai conference’s theme of “Predict, Prevent, Protect”  hinted at the municipality’s larger goals for sharing “Big Data” — to predict foodborne issues to prevent illnesses and proactively protect consumers. Al Shamsi, the chairperson of the Dubai conference, called this the “future of the Food Safety Department in Dubai.” Access to this larger set of shared data will allow for actionable information to “predict foodborne issues, prevent illnesses, and protect the consumers,” he said.

Dominating Dubai’s malls and business districts are American restaurants, such as McDonald’s.
Photos courtesy of Darin Detwiler

According to a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report (http://bit.ly/1jAELlW), almost one in 10 people contract a (mostly preventable) food-related illness every year, with some 420,000 deaths a year worldwide. Additionally, a 2016 CDC report (http://bit.ly/2AjOA15) includes estimates that roughly  one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick annually, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

Leaders at the conference noted that the initial phase of data compilation focuses on food establishments handling high-risk foods. Soon, all other food establishments will be required to update their platform with all the information about their food items, including health and nutritional claims, details of their premises, and even certification and other information about their food handlers. This data will afford inspectors and consumers unprecedented access to critical information. 

More important is the ability of officials and consumers to take action after a health violation or food poisoning incident. Dubai stated that its goal is for all this to be in place before it hosts the World Expo in 2020.

During the conference, one official stated that Food Watch will help them “trace the safety of food throughout the food chain, from farm to fork. It will have customized interfaces for the department, food companies, and consumers. We are now building the database and infrastructure for implementing this in different phases.”

Perhaps some events earlier in 2017 prompted support for these measures. In May, the government of Dubai banned the import of Idol Slim Coffee from Thailand because it included an ingredient banned from the international market in 2010.

Dubai represents a city at the intersection of ancient values and modern solutions.
Photos courtesy of Darin Detwiler
Motorcycle delivery of food is a common sight on the main highways and side streets of Dubai.
Photos courtesy of Darin Detwiler

The Dubai municipality is currently working with other governments and food companies for the implementation of this blockchain-like system. Officials announced that a team of over 100 experts has already begun working to create the database and infrastructure.

In her opening remarks at the conference, Ecolab Vice President of Food Safety and Public Health Ruth Petran stated, “Mitigating food safety risks requires a holistic approach, from considering sustainability or questions surrounding local sourcing to the inherent logistic complexities of today’s global supply chain.”

Analytics experts and academics at the conference agreed with Petran as they warned that artificial intelligence alone is not the solution. John Elder, founder of Elder Research in Virginia; Cronan McNamara, CEO of Creme Global in Dublin, Ireland; and other leaders in big data and authenticity discussed that turning accessible data into actionable information will require the right people with the right skills. Predictive analytics and big data management expertise are no longer a “luxury” item or a “cutting-edge” element on a résumé. Likewise, any significant training program must focus on a wide range of competencies from compliance to ethics to cybersecurity to a global mindset.

Dubai offers American companies an opportunity to grow within this platform while blockchain for food safety and authenticity builds a presence in the U.S. However, some industry experts are questioning how the use of this type of big data and predictive analytics in places such as Dubai and China will contrast with the results in the United States, due to the differences in the legal and political environments.

As a representative of Northeastern University, I also spoke at the conference, presenting on higher education and food safety with an emphasis on the global imperatives related to food authenticity. Along with other professors from American and Arabic universities, I connected local outbreaks and recalls to global supply chains and global economic and political concerns. These are critical elements in training the next generation of food safety professionals — especially in the age of blockchain. Northeastern University is working with IBM on creating an effective and sustainable training program for blockchain certification to build a global workforce with the skills needed to truly bring about the intent of these food data platforms.