Desktop tools critical to the “rapid-fire” investigation into the E. Coli breakout in Europe

The only type in common with both companies and all the mixtures was fenugreek.

That discovery sent EU investigators in pursuit of fenugreek seeds back down the European food chain, in a rapid-fire search that deployed personnel from eight countries’ food agencies as well as the ECDC, World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They drafted a detailed 4-page questionnaire that fed data into Excel spreadsheets and a relational database. They crunched (and crunched and crunched) the numbers, and this is what emerged:

All of the seeds came from a single shipment that left a port in Egypt almost 2 years earlier, on Nov. 24, 2009.

Interesting to note that following the E. coli outbreak in Europe, it all started with desktop tools (Excel) being used to collect data for the government investigation. Quoting directly from the European Food Safety Authority report (PDF) itself they used combination of tools:

Data on single parts of the food supply chain were gathered using spreadsheets (MS Excel) for each company. A relational database (HSQLDB version 2.2.4) was used to manage the data/information from the tracing. Additional processing was done using the statistical package SAS version 9.2.

Of course, you do wonder if the investigation could have happened even more quickly or even that the issue could have been pre-empted if Government 2.0 principles (open data, crowdsourcing) and technologies (Web 2.0) had been applied?

Despite this level of traceability, authorities are still concerned that this outbreak is actually not finished, because they couldn’t trace every seed or batch that might be infected. Maybe there is still a necessary role for crowdsourcing in this instance that a traditional approach just can’t scale to resolve?