The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

DNA Tracing Update

DNA Tracing Update

Food Safety Update

July 27, 2008

Only 11% of consumers are “completely confident” in the safety of food bought at supermarkets, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2008 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Report – a sign that the food industry may not be doing enough to assuage food safety concerns. Now, help could be on the way in the form of DNA analysis.
 
Currently used only for meat tracking, DNA analysis can be utilized to identify multiple animals whose parts are used in a given sample of ground beef. It can also be used to determine exactly where the meat came from and when the animals in question were slaughtered. But that’s not all. The technology can even determine if meat marketing claims, like “organic” or “Angus,” are correct.
 
European companies have been quick to embrace the trend, with both Tesco and Superquinn launching marketing campaigns surrounding the technology. However, DNA analysis is not widely used in the United States – nor is it required. In the past, concerns about the additional costs of implementing the technology, and then having to pass these costs onto consumers, have stalled adoption domestically.
 
All that could change now that the Ireland-based IdentiGEN, a DNA analysis provider with American headquarters in Lawrence, Kansas, has starting inking contracts with several US companies.
 
IdentiGEN offers USDA-approved DNA tracing through their TraceBack technology system. With TraceBack, meat packers, processors, grocery retailers and the food service sector can trace meat products from point of sale to the animal of origin. Some of their customers have aggressively marketed the technology. Others have chosen to use it as more of a risk management and internal control tool.
 
Here’s how it works. First, carcasses or live animals are sampled, on the farm or in the slaughterhouse using customized sampling technology. Meat from retail outlets is sampled on a continuing basis as well. Next, data about the samples are analyzed throughout the flow of the supply chain. Lastly, the resulting data provides retailers and meat processors with details on the meat’s traceability.
 
The importance of this technology is two-fold. Guaranteeing accurate and reliable traceability can help support consumer confidence in their meat purchases. And the technology can be used as a monitoring tool to ensure that only meat from animals that meet customer specifications is sold in stores.
 
“At the core of the technology is the ability to provide precise information on where and, by proxy, how meat is produced. This level of transparency within the supply chain engenders a culture of compliance, as product can be unequivocally associated with individual stakeholders. Furthermore, and more importantly, the level of transparency afforded by the system provides considerable comfort to consumers that products sold under the system are produced in a safe manner – and one that meets their quality expectations,” says Ronan Loftus, EVP of Commercial Development for IdentiGEN.
 
Best of all, says Loftus, the entire process is inexpensive and easy to implement. Producers, packers or members of a retail staff can apply the system with minimal training. Also, now that some countries (like Japan and Korea) are starting to require traceability for imports, the adoption of DNA analysis measures could become more and more prevalent – especially in the US.
 
“In offering the level of traceability afforded by the system, DNA analysis would provide considerable comfort to concerned consumers and importers in those countries that the meat they are importing is produced in a safe and top quality environment,” says Loftus. “Similarly, the EU has stringent traceability requirements to ensure that meat from animals treated with growth promoters is not imported from the US.”
 
Other products could eventually benefit from the technology too. Loftus says that as consumers increasingly want to know more about where and how our food is produced, this will increasingly drive the demand for technology solutions that can help verify and authenticate product attributes.
 
“From our perspective, DNA traceability programs are configured to offer value-add to progressive players in the marketplace, enabling them to differentiate their meat programs from the competition. In this sense the system is positioned more as a commercial opportunity than a regulatory compliance tool,” adds Loftus.
 
Bovigen, a Pfizer Animal Health genomics company based in Louisiana, also offers a genetic testing system, SureTRAK, for accurate, low-cost traceability of animals to meat.  By using an animal's unique DNA code, Bovigen can accurately trace a carcass or retail cut back to the source animal.