Special edition: Track and Trace

Revolutionising traceability? DNA barcodes track the food, not the package

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

DNA barcodes can trace food through the whole supply chain
DNA barcodes can trace food through the whole supply chain

Related tags Dna

Food producers will be able to spray unique DNA barcodes directly onto food to improve traceability, when DNATrax becomes commercially available next year. 

DNATrax was originally developed alongside a US government agency for biosecurity purposes, but its creators saw a need for better traceability in the food industry.

They say current technology – which can take weeks to identify the origin of tainted food – is ‘not capable of effectively tracing produce.’ Instead, DNA Trax can provide information within minutes.

‘Barcodes’ on food, not packaging

DNATrax can be sprayed directly onto food. Each set of microparticles has a unique DNA ‘barcode.’ By taking a swab of the surface, traceability information can be obtained from the food itself.

The technology was developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (a US national security facility with research areas including counterterrorism and defense), led by physical chemist George Farquar. It has been licensed to DNATrek, which is working with producers and partners to identify its first commercial customers in the food industry.   

Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO, DNATrek, told FoodProductionDaily.com current technology is not capable of effectively tracing produce from the grower to the dinner table.

“Today’s systems rely on each node in the supply chain to maintain -1/+1 traceability ​[each node knows the point before and after it in the chain],” he said. 

“It is not uncommon to have 12-16 nodes in the food supply chain.

“Every party, every node needs to implement very expensive systems and remain 100% compliant, 100% of the time.  This practically never happens.  If one node drops the ball then traceability is generally lost.

“Even if everyone remains in compliance, traceability information is printed on boxes and cases that contain the produce.  The moment they arrive at retailers, these are recycled or destroyed and the produce is put on display.  As a result the traceability information is lost.”

Consequently, traceback investigations take weeks or – more often – are inconclusive, he added. 


Traceability in a matter of minutes

“DNATrax solves this problem by putting the traceability information directly on the produce,” ​Zografos said. “If there is a piece of produce left somewhere, even in the trash, traceability information can be recovered.  A simple swab of the surface and an off-the-shelf instrument will decode the traceability information in a matter of minutes.”

The DNA barcodes comprise of around 100 DNA bases of synthetically produced nucleic acid, copied from genes unique to a deep-sea organism (and consequently one unlikely to be found in day-to-day conditions). A nearly unlimited variety of different ‘barcodes’ can be developed.

DNATrax can be sprayed directly onto food or mixed in with liquid or dry goods. Zografos says the technology could, theoretically, apply to any foodstuff, although there may be practical limitations due to conditions in the supply chain.

When asked if there would be concerns about DNATrax’s direct contact with food, Zografos said, “The DNATrax material is odorless, colorless and tasteless. It has already been approved as a food additive by the FDA and it is completely safe for human consumption.  The amount of DNATrax material that we would expect to be on a piece of produce would be in the range of ten billionths of a gram.  

“There are several formulations of DNATrax; for example we will have a formulation that will be made exclusively with naturally occurring DNA sequences, extracted from seaweed, etc.  We respect people’s sensitivities when it comes to food; our mission is to provide assurance and peace of mind, not make people anxious about what they eat.”

Anthony Zografos, CEO DNATrek; and co-inventor of the company's technology

Technology tested by the Pentagon

The initial development of DNATrax was for bio-defence applications, and was funded by DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency), an official US agency for countering weapons of mass destruction. Using specific DNA barcodes, scientists could determine how air particles are distributed through a building, and ascertain the best locations for bio-detection devices.

Scientist then saw an opportunity for the technology in the food industry.

We realized DNATrax could develop a groundbreaking traceability method, something that has never been done before with biological material,”​ said Zografos. “Biological material has only been used for authentication or identification - not traceability.  

“Our backgrounds in human health and safety, our love for fresh, high quality produce and our desire to contribute to human welfare led us to the food traceability idea.”

The development of DNATrax has been completed, and a six month pilot program will be run in the first half of 2015. DNATrax for food traceability will be commercially available in 2015. 

Related topics Food safety & quality

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