DNA technology ‘ready, willing and able’ to deliver transparency to meat products

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Noel Hendrickson
Getty/Noel Hendrickson

Related tags Meat & Seafood Meat Dna Traceability

DNA testing can help bolster confidence in meat products, believes traceability expert IdentiGEN.

We know that today’s consumers expect heightened levels of traceability – particularly when it comes to meat, where animal welfare, health and environmental concerns are often in the spotlight.

Anxieties around origins of products and ingredients have further clearly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Market researcher Nielson, for example, notes that more than ever, shoppers want to understand the supply chain, with complete transparency from farm to factory to distribution, and they want details of the measures being taken to assure their safety.

Sustainability issues have also taken centre stage, with the food industry and particularly the meat sector, at pains to become more environmentally and socially sustainable. According to research by the Harman Group, over two-thirds of customers want to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions, a key reason why 32% of customers choose to buy sustainably sourced products.

Amid calls by the public for more transparency, technology is therefore expected to play a bigger role in the meat industry. Seeking a way to deliver on this need, retailers and processors have turned to DNA testing in their search for a robust solution to underpin commitments to quality, sustainability and welfare in their meat supply.

DNA: As ‘undeniably unique as a natural barcode’

IdentiGEN’s DNA Traceback is designed to help safeguard and strengthen the integrity of the supply chain for meat, poultry and seafood products through an accurate and precise traceability platform. 

The Irish-based company’s cutting edge ‘fork-to-farm’ technology aims to cut through the complexity of the protein supply chain to accurately trace beef, pork, poultry and seafood products back through production to the farm, parent or individual animal from which they originated.

Since DNA forms the building block for every individual animal and is unique as a natural barcode, IdentiGEN utilises the fact that DNA is immutable and, combined with data analytics, can verify the paperwork and provide accurate data to a more precise source.

DNA Traceback is considered one of the ‘most reliable solutions’ on the market today, Fiona Marshall, VP Marketing, IdentiGEN, told FoodNavigator. The complex nature of the meat supply chain makes it 'virtually impossible' for standard traceability solutions to trace back to the farm, explained Marshall, after they are disassembled, co-mingled and transformed at the scale required by industry. Batch movement and scale present other challenges in achieving accurate and precise traceability back to the farm of origin. DNA is as ‘undeniably unique as a natural barcode’, we were told.

IdentiGEN traces all beef products from Marks and Spencer in the UK to support the retailer's 'Trust our beef' claim.

‘To claim sustainability, you first need robust traceability’

Consumers today want to experience the truth behind their food choices, Marshall noted. “To claim sustainability, you first need robust traceability to the farm. Today’s savvy consumers are demanding ever-greater levels of information to definitively identify where their food comes from and how it is produced.”

To meet consumer demand, it will be more important than ever for brands to up their transparency game, she believes; from clean label ingredients to ethical and responsible ingredient sourcing, consumer demand for a transparent supply chain and product label has never been higher.

“In fact, according to a 2020 Innova Consumer Survey, three in five global consumers say that they are interested in learning more about where their food comes from and how it is made. This means the term ‘clean label’ has gone from meaning transparency about being organic and additive-free to also showing how sustainable and humane a product is.”

Meanwhile, the growing interest in plant-based products has – perhaps conversely – also increased demand for better quality meat, said Marshall.

“Whilst plant-based protein is growing – so is meat, especially since COVID-19 – so one could argue that high quality sustainable protein is becoming more important. Consumers are not ready to give up on meat and want the best quality that they can afford with assurance of sustainability – they want to know where it is from and how it was made.” 

There’s also rising interest too in science and nutrition among consumers, which is again hastening demand for traceability.

“Technology is addressing demands for food and beverage with enhanced nutritional value, sustainability or ethical impact, according to Innova – which is exactly what customers expect. Four in five global consumers agreeing with the statement ‘I believe in progress in food and beverage through science’. Food manufacturers need to leverage the expertise available in the industry to meet consumer expectations, especially when it comes to overcoming the challenges associated with creating great tasting healthy foods.”

IdentiGEN has been offering DNA-based solutions to the food industry since 1996. Its DNA reference database of the contributing animals is routinely validated. It now works with six out of the 10 top food suppliers worldwide.

Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn is one retailer that has turned to DNA- based traceability in its search for a robust solution to underpin its commitment to quality, sustainability and welfare in its meat supply. Albert Heijn -- named most sustainable Dutch supermarket chain every year since 2018 -- became the first retailer worldwide to verify its pledge to use only slow growing chicken breeds with DNA verification. It uses IdentiGEN’s DNA Traceback platform to verify its commitments to only using Slow Growing Chicken Breeds for its AH Chicken Brand (De AH Kip) and to verify the origin of its Beter leven 1-star pork and beef. “Food safety, quality, sustainability, and product integrity are issues that have played an important role in governments and consumers in recent years,” ​said Emiel Beekwilder, Quality Manager Food at Albert Heijn. “People want added value. We offer our customers products they can enjoy without any concern. The story behind a product must match the label. Now we can prove this.”

IdentiGEN also traces all beef products from Marks and Spencer in the UK to support the retailer's 'Trust our beef' claim. “The use of science is key,”​ said Steve McLean Head of Agriculture, Marks & Spencer. “The DNA Traceability platform from IdentiGEN allows us to ensure origin claims from a simple steak, roasting joint, a beef sandwich or a cottage pie or ready meal.  We can verify that the beef is moving through the supply chain from farm to fork correctly.”

In the US, IdentiGEN also works with processor Tyson Fresh Meats and in the foodservice sector with Performance Food Group.

"The big food trends are transparency, environmental sustainability, online shopping and science,”​ added Marshall. “DNA Traceback is ready, willing and able to work and deliver on all of these trends for meat shoppers. For consumers, we are meeting the demand of knowing where your food comes from and confirming that you're getting what you're paying for.”

‘Helping the industry as it improves standards’

This verification system, she adds, has many advantages over alternatives on the market today in terms of accuracy and precision for meat as DNA technology is used along with smart data algorithms to verify beef, pork poultry and seafood products at scale.  

"The standards in the industry are being raised,”​ Marshall added. “Our goal is to work with industry and ensure that for those who are meeting those high standards and are putting in the work, that we give them the verification that they need to support their marketing efforts and deliver objective transparency to their consumers. Everybody wins in that process."

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