DHS eyes U food protection tech

CRISTAL allows companies to track their supply chains and protect imports.

Ethan Nelson

A computer program developed by a team of University of Minnesota scientists could soon be in the Department of Homeland Security’s possession.

Criticality Spatial Analysis, or CRISTAL, was created by University scientists to track food production through each step of the supply chain. The program, which could be available within the next year, is partially intended to identify threats to food companies’ supply chains, like a natural disaster.

The U.S. government and private businesses would use the program to trace food around the world, said Amy Kircher, the director of the University’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense. The program is currently in beta testing.

CRISTAL users input information about production and processing facilities and transportation routes, and the program then visualizes the supply chain and provides a map of potential hazards.

For example, a food company can see if a hurricane on the other side of the world is impacting their supply chain — which includes farming, processing, manufacturing, retail and everything in between.

“If you’re concerned that some of the components of your supply chain are vulnerable to attack, then CRISTAL could have some usefulness,” said Tim Boyer, an epidemiologist at the center and the program’s lead developer.

Homeland Security established the University’s food protection and defense center when Congress mandated that DHS research centers be built at universities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to identify vulnerabilities in the country’s security.

About three years ago, the center’s scientists determined that the country had weak spots in its food protection and developed a plan for addressing it.

The University has received more than $14 million in DHS funding in the past three fiscal years, most of which has gone to the center. The University’s center is one of nine in the country funded by DHS.

Though he developed the program with protecting the country’s food in mind, Boyer said any company could use the program.

“Our center has been working for quite a while with the states and with food companies to help them identify critical components of their systems,” Boyer said.

Matthew Coats, a program manager for three of the DHS’s university programs, said the department provides universities’ centers with various problems, like an inadequate system for protecting food, and asks them to provide solutions.

The Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science received about $120,000 to support research in both fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

The center has also received funding from private businesses and the United Nations, Kircher said.

The DHS is set to fund the center until Feb. 27, DHS spokesman John Verrico said. Congress will decide whether to continue funding the center before that date. For now, though, it’s running on leftover money from previous years, Coats said.

“We do think [food protection] is an area that needs funding,” he said, adding that the center can compete for a grant that Homeland Security makes available to it every six years.

Regardless of whether Homeland Security funds the center, it would still be able to run on funding from other organizations.