Spray on traceability for contaminated food

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

LLNL physical chemist George Farquar demonstrates how the product can be applied to food to identify it down the chain
LLNL physical chemist George Farquar demonstrates how the product can be applied to food to identify it down the chain

Related tags: Supply chain, Polymerase chain reaction

A method to trace contaminated food back to its source developed by US researchers and a start-up company is targeting adoption from food firms by the end of the year.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) with start-up DNATrek created the technology which is described as a microscopic barcode that can be sprayed on food or packaging at multiple stages in the supply chain, such as the farm or processing plant.

The developers want to partner with food firms immediately to evaluate needs and execute pilot programs and hope to have it in the market by the end of 2015.

If pathogens are detected on produce, for example, DNATrax analysis would provide information about its origin so the risk can be mitigated.  

DNATrax told our sister publication about the idea late last year​.

Lawrence Livermore originally designed the DNATrax technology to track airflow patterns.

However, the team now expects to run a pilot program with several commodities in the next nine months and make the product commercially available by the end of the year.  

Globalization of supply chain

Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO at DNATrek, said the globalization of the food supply chain will be a major adoption driver.  

“Existing traceability methods require expensive infrastructure and in low cost regions the likelihood that such infrastructures will be put in place to meet the traceability requirements is very low,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.

“DNATrax can clearly identify the chain of custody of the product and that allows investigators to quickly zoom into the responsible parties.  

“By today’s methods, investigators need to follow a chain of handoffs along the supply chain which sometimes may include 12-16 nodes.  At each node they must collect and review records, interview personnel, and audit processes before they can identify the preceding node in the supply chain.  

“This process is very difficult and very time consuming. In order to mitigate the risk to public health product recalls are initiated that can be of very large scope, frequently in the tune of hundreds of millions.”

What is it and how does it work?

DNATrax are particles of sugar and non-living and non-viable DNA that can serve as an invisible barcode.

It’s an odorless and tasteless substance approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive, safe for consumption.

Zografos said it wants to protect people from pathogens and other harmful agents that may be present on their food.  

“Our material is extracted from plants, it is 100% natural and it is applied in minute amounts,” ​he said.  

“For example, on a piece of produce we expect to have 0.000000001 grams of DNATrax material.

“It would take many lifetimes for a person to consume 1 gram of our material even if it were sprayed on every food product.”

DNATrax ‘lifted off’ product

If food is contaminated when it reaches the store or dinner table, DNATrax can be lifted off and analyzed in the lab using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to identify the source in an hour.

A tainted apple, for example, can be traced back to the orchards by DNATrax to determine when it was picked, who picked it and potentially which tree it came from.

Zografos said it was extremely easy to lift off the DNATrax from produce and can be done in minutes.

“PCR analysis may take 30 minutes today but with rapid advances in the technology driven by forensics and other markets we expect that time to be reduced to a few minutes in the near future.  

“PCR Thermo Cyclers are off the shelf instruments of relatively low cost although the cost depends on the level of automation.  Fully automated systems that can be operated by essentially “unskilled” personnel cost a little more.”

DNATrax also can be used to trace fraudulent food back to producers using similar methods.

For olive oil the technology can be added to olives as they are pressed into oil. If the fraudulent bottle is pulled off a store’s shelf, a quantitative analysis can determine how much has been diluted. 

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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