Data journeys: Taiwan, Food Packaging, and Surf

Adventures in data science! It’s amazing where it can take you. Truly.

If you’re flexible and have a background in any numerical sciences (I studied mathematics), your career can take you in any number of directions; aerospace, finance, medicine, software. Unexpectedly and out of nowhere, I ended up gaining a wealth of expertise in that oh-so-sexy of topics, food packaging safety.

Seven years ago my company Creme Global asked me to be involved in a major European project called FACET, with the goal of creating a food chemical surveillance system for Europe. The central issue is that chemicals can migrate from packaging into food, and people can subsequently consume those foods, so we need data, models and software to ensure packaging and foods on the market are safe. I managed the project for the company, and as a result got to grips with all aspects of food packaging data, food consumption data, and how to crunch it all in together in a statistical model to give an estimate of risk.

It turns out this is an ongoing issue with far-reaching implications, not least in the modern world where the food supply chain is a complex interconnected web on a global scale. Just last month, the Taiwanese branch International Life Science Institute (ILSI) had their annual science meeting which focused on food packaging safety (a concern currently in Taiwan), and invited me to present on the learnings of the FACET project as part of the meeting.

The conference was preceded by a day of meetings with the Taiwan FDA. I had the pleasure of participating in discussions with their experts in the Division of Food Safety, in particular focusing on chemical food safety. Consumers in Taiwan (as seems to be the case everywhere on the planet with social media) are terribly concerned with chemicals in food. We had very interesting discussions on methods of risk assessment for food packaging chemicals, and how science and safety get translated into policy in Europe, the US, and Asia. We finished with a tour of their impressive laboratory facilities where they monitor the Taiwanese food supply for a range of chemicals, microbes, economic adulterants, and more.

The ILSI conference itself was an interesting experience, with a series of presentations in both Chinese and English. Dr. Mitchell Cheeseman, Managing Director at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and expert in all things relating to food additives, gave two excellent presentations on both risk assessment and policy in the US. I delivered my presentation on food packaging safety in Europe and work carried out in the FACET project, taking a focus on the importance of good data in risk assessment (as is my wont). There were also perspectives from the Taiwan FDA from Section Chief Dr. Chia-Ding Liao and Japan from Mr. Koichi Matsuda. The meeting concluded with a panel discussion across all speakers, with plenty of challenging and relevant questions.


I concluded my trip with a jaunt down south for a bit of surfing. The south and east of the island get a pretty decent and consistent swell coming off the Pacific all year round, and the water temperatures are around 25 – 29C. Contrast that with the single digit temperatures of the Irish waters and you can see why I was so compelled to do it. And I have to say, the people, food, coast and mountains of Taiwan are all fabulous; it’s off the beaten track but I highly recommend a trip!

Written by Cian O'Mahony on May 5 2017

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