It sounds like something straight out of agricultural science fiction: a liquid solution containing unique bits of DNA that gets sprayed on foods in order to easily identify information about where it came from and how it was produced in the event of an outbreak or recall.
DNATrek, a Bay Area startup, is hoping to revolutionize the food traceability industry with DNA “barcodes” that can be added to fruits and vegetables via a liquid spray or a wax. The company says the tracers are odorless, tasteless and pose no food safety risk.
Founder and CEO Anthony Zografos heard about the DNA tracing technology developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a biodefense tool under a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Zografos saw an opportunity to apply the technology to the food safety industry to more quickly trace back outbreaks and recalls — a very challenging endeavor with current technology, he said.
“Because of the way food traceability is set up, traceback investigations are very often inconclusive or take weeks or more to complete,” Zografos told Food Safety News. “Without being able to figure out the problem, food companies usually issue these massive, expensive, knee-jerk recalls.”
The technology works by taking small snippets of synthetic DNA or genetic material from organisms typically not found in the grocery produce section — right now they’re using seaweed and other sea organisms — and adding those snippets with trace amounts of sugar in a sprayable solution that goes directly on the fruit and vegetables. If a problem with the produce arises, the DNA on the surface can be swabbed and identified within 15 minutes.
The advantage of having a DNA barcode directly on fresh produce is that it significantly reduces the potential for traceback information to be lost. Very often, boxes used to transport fresh produce have been discarded long before anyone catches on to a problem with the products, and those boxes have traditionally carried traceback information.
The technology allows for multiple layers of spray, as well. The grower can spray it on the farm, the processor can spray it in their sorting facility, and the transportation company can spray it when it’s en route to a store.
Each barcode has two parts. The first part is a fixed code unique to the company handling the food, assigned by DNATrek.
The second part is a configurable code that food company supplies based on whatever parameters they wish to track. They can use a unique code to identify which field the produce was grown, the harvest date, the picking crew, the machines that were used, or any other metric they want to track.
The more specific a company gets with their identification codes, the better they can identify any food safety problems that might arise with their fruits or vegetables.
Zografos reiterated the safety of the product and differentiated it from genetic engineering.
“If you bite into an apple, that has DNA in it. It’s not like we don’t consume DNA,” he said. “There is no scientifically-based concern about this. We can extract DNA from anything, and I don’t think anyone would argue that seaweed is unsafe.”
The next step is testing the effectiveness and safety with pilot programs on five or six types of produce, Zografos said.
Assuming they can get the fresh produce industry on board with their idea, they see a myriad of other potential applications. The wine and juice industries could be next.
“Ultimately, this is nothing more than ink,” Zografos said. “We can put it on pretty much anything you like.”