The data-dense graphic above may be too reduced to read (here’s the really big version), but its intricacy masks a simple and fairly dire message: The global trade in food has become so complex that we have almost lost the ability to trace the path of any food sold into the network. And, as a result, we are also about to lose the ability to track any contaminated food, or any product causing foodborne illness.
The graphic, and warning, come from a paper published last week in PLoS ONE by researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary and Romania. The group used United Nations food-trade data — along with some math that I do not pretend to understand — to describe an “international agro-food trade network” (IFTN) with seven countries at its center, but a dense web of connections with many others. Each of the seven countries, they find, trades with more than 77 percent of all the 207 countries on which the UN gathers information.
As a result, they say: “The IFTN has become a densely interwoven complex network, creating a perfect platform to spread potential contaminants with practically untraceable origins.”