A Gravity-Based Food Flow Model to Identify the Source of Foodborne Disease Outbreaks

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jan 9;17(2):444. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17020444.


Computational traceback methodologies are important tools for investigations of widespread foodborne disease outbreaks as they assist investigators to determine the causative outbreak location and food item. In modeling the entire food supply chain from farm to fork, however, these methodologies have paid little attention to consumer behavior and mobility, instead making the simplifying assumption that consumers shop in the area adjacent to their home location. This paper aims to fill this gap by introducing a gravity-based approach to model food-flows from supermarkets to consumers and demonstrating how models of consumer shopping behavior can be used to improve computational methodologies to infer the source of an outbreak of foodborne disease. To demonstrate our approach, we develop and calibrate a gravity model of German retail shopping behavior at the postal-code level. Modeling results show that on average about 70 percent of all groceries are sourced from non-home zip codes. The value of considering shopping behavior in computational approaches for inferring the source of an outbreak is illustrated through an application example to identify a retail brand source of an outbreak. We demonstrate a significant increase in the accuracy of a network-theoretic source estimator for the outbreak source when the gravity model is included in the food supply network compared with the baseline case when contaminated individuals are assumed to shop only in their home location. Our approach illustrates how gravity models can enrich computational inference models for identifying the source (retail brand, food item, location) of an outbreak of foodborne disease. More broadly, results show how gravity models can contribute to computational approaches to model consumer shopping interactions relating to retail food environments, nutrition, and public health.

Keywords: epidemic; food retailing; food supply network; foodborne diseases; gravity model; network source identification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Commerce
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Food Contamination / prevention & control*
  • Foodborne Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Public Health / methods