A technology application developed at a U.S. Department of Energy facility could shorten the time it takes to track down the source of contaminated food in an outbreak.

The stochastic mapping model developed at the department’s Sandia National Laboratories would use probability theory to help account for uncertainties along the supply chain during a food safety outbreak, according to a Sandia news release.

That could make it easier to trace outbreaks to their source, Stephen Conrad, a Sandia researcher, said in the release.

“This is often a serious problem — when there is an outbreak of food poisoning in a particular region, and the healthcare authorities cannot quickly trace the source of the outbreak,” Conrad said. “Epidemiologists involved in traceback start behind the eight ball. They attempt to reconstruct the pathway the contaminated food has traveled through the distribution network well after the fact.”

Stochastic mapping also could help assess the vulnerability of food supplies to widescale, deliberate contamination, Conrad said.

“Stochastic network representation provides the ability to incorporate and express the uncertainties using probability maps,” he said.

The method allows effective risk analysis, leading to food defense strategies, Conrad said.

The next step for Sandia researchers is to work with businesses and government agencies to determine the feasibility of adopting stochastic mapping technology.

“If stochastic mapping was widely used now, perhaps outbreaks, such as the recent ones involving salmonella, could be more quickly tracked down and contained,” Conrad said. “Quicker containment would benefit not only consumers but also the farmers who grow fresh food for our nation, and who can be severely impacted economically by uncertainties and market restrictions on sales of their products caused by delays in pinpointing an outbreak’s source.”