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Food Safety News

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‘Nature’s Bar Code’ Aids Traceability

Now America’s lettuce is making us sick.  Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a massive recall of romaine lettuce believed to be contaminated with a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria. Previous recalls have decimated the spinach and tomato industries, forcing hard working farmers to destroy tens of millions of dollars worth of crops.  The outbreaks made Americans fearful of eating healthy produce.  In the most technologically advanced country on Earth, it still takes two to three weeks for the FDA to track foodborne illnesses back to the farm or point of origin. That’s an eternity for a supply chain that distributes food in 24 hours, and for a human body that sickens and dies from these diseases in hours.

The yawning gap between detection of outbreak and identification of source costs food companies billions per year as they scramble to destroy produce, deal with abrupt order cancellations, and salvage their brand reputations.  Even for innocent farmers and food companies, the disruption can be massive and costly.  Sales of romaine lettuce were likely frozen prior to pegging the source of the outbreak.  Even after the outbreak is contained, consumers will remember the romaine scare when they shop and curtail purchases.  That’s understandable.  No one likes to gamble with foodborne illnesses.

What if the FDA could reduce this time gap from two weeks to 20 minutes? What if a drop of water squeezed from a single leaf of lettuce was enough to identify the farm or food processing plant that started the epidemic? What if every food company could afford and operate this technology?  In fact, such a technology exists.  It’s powerful, it’s here, it’s affordable, and it’s easy to use.  I am referring to stable isotope analysis. This is a well-understood, scientifically credible way of analyzing molecules in a piece of food to identify ratios of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon isotopes. Those ratios can then be mapped back to distinct geographic locations.  In other words, Mother Nature has her own built-in bar code, isotopes that are immutable and trackable.

Not surprisingly, Mother Nature’s Bar Code is way better than anything mankind has dreamed up thus far. Here’s why. The existing mechanisms to track produce through the food supply chain are focused on RFID tags or bar codes on boxes.  These technologies are great for televisions and toys.  Such systems fail miserably in monitoring food.  A single plastic box of lettuce may contain produce from multiple suppliers.  A salad bar can be even worse, with produce mixed and matched and reshuffled on a daily basis.  The bottom line is, you can’t put a bar code on every leaf of lettuce.  This gaping hole in the security system for the food supply chain makes it impossible to track all potential sources of contamination.  Did that tainted tomato come from Florida or California?  Did that contaminated milk come from Wisconsin or Oregon? The food companies can’t tell and it takes the authorities weeks to find out.

Such delays could quickly be reduced from weeks to hours or minutes if stable isotope analysis was broadly deployed across the food chain.  A food service company faced with an outbreak could squeeze water out of the produce and put a drop of that water into a stable isotope analyzer.  Then, with a press of a button, the analyzer would identify the responsible farm or region.  If it’s so easy, then why has stable isotope analysis not been used before to any great degree to safeguard the food supply?  The primary reasons are cost and complexity.  In the past, scientific instruments for stable isotope analysis cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Those machines required a full-time scientist or highly-trained lab technician for ongoing operations.

Today, newer systems capable of stable isotope analysis (such as the one manufactured by my company, Picarro) cost three times less upfront than older measurement technologies.  Better yet, these systems can be operated by a field manager or a production line supervisor and require minimal training.  These newer systems can handle the high-throughput required to keep up with commercial production lines and distribution facilities. Food companies could collect samples of produce from their suppliers every few months and use these samples to establish a library of stable isotope fingerprints–Mother Nature’s Bar Codes.  Forward thinking service providers, such as Isoforensics, are already building isotope maps of the country that are reference guides for food company customers and regulators.

For food companies large and small, setting up a stable isotope analysis auditing regime is now an affordable and invaluable insurance policy.  For affected companies, gaining foodborne illness intelligence quickly might prevent massive costs and even insolvency.  Witness the fate of Peanut Corp. of America, which sank into bankruptcy in Feb. 2009 less than two months after it first reported a foodborne illness problem.  For innocent growers and produce companies, stable isotope analysis will let them continue to sell their product and defend their brands.  Most importantly, the health care savings resulting from a robust food origin verification system would be immeasurable.  Foodborne illnesses afflict millions of Americans each year.  Thousands die horrible, preventable deaths from these maladies.  An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure and Mother Nature’s Bar Code is the best tool in existence to prevent these tragedies.  The clock is ticking.  

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    Frankly, I’d never heard of Stable Isotope Analysis. Mr. Woelk, would it work for boxed beef? For example, one box of Rib Eyes has five rib eyes in it, possibly emanating from five feedlots. Would each cattle feedlot exhibit unique isotope characteristics? Secondly, what would be the cost of your equipment which would be adequately sized for the large slaughter plants to use? And, would a large slaughter plant require several of these machines, if the plant kills thousands of beef daily, and desired to test 5% of their products, as an example, to “mark” such meat with unique origin characteristics?
    My perception is that USDA/FSIS would mandate that the downstream further processing plants purchase Stable Isotope Analysis equipment, while continuing to insulate the monstrous-sized large slaughter plants from performing this task.
    One obvious question which surfaces is whether USDA/FSIS itself should have such equipment located in numerous meat plants across the country? What would equipment cost if the agency were to purchase hundreds or thousands of them? Not every plant would need one, but such equipment must be available within one day for expedited analysis.
    You’ve provided examples of how Picarro’s methodology could work with produce: how would it work on meat cuts? And, please provide us with the potential limitations of your Stable Isotope Analysis protocol. If it could be used for beef, and testing at downstream further processing plants reveal that the meat came from a certain feedlot, but not identify the source originating slaughter plant, my perception is that your technology still will not be capable of determining which slaughter facility contaminated the carcass. Feedlots market cattle through various slaughter plants. The feedlots are NOT the cause of E.coli contamination, until we develop effective vaccines to eliminate e.coli in live animals.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, Montana
    John Munsell

  • Hi John.
    Most people don’t know what a stable isotope is so here’s a little background for you and others. Molecules are comprised of atoms, and atoms are comprised of protons, electrons and neutrons. “Oxygen 18” written as 18O simply has 18 neutrons whereas 16O has 16 neutrons. Neutrons give atoms and molecules mass, which differentiates one molecule of water from another, for example. We primarily focus on isotopes in water and carbon dioxide. Scientists have been using big expensive instruments to precisely measure the ratio’s of these isotopes for various environmental applications for years, but of course few people are equipped to run such devices. We changed that up. Now many of the world’s top biogeo scientists are running our instruments, but we are clearly committed to serving non-scientific communities as well.
    Okay – on to your questions. We just announced a solution to identify cow milk origin, so beef origin is certainly doable. Stable isotope signatures are created by the feed and water cattle consume, so the record is created in the feedlot or pasture not at the slaughterhouse. It’s highly unlikely that stable isotopes could discriminate adjacent feedlots, but quite likely that it they could discriminate feedlots from different counties. So, we could assign origin to each rib eye in a box within those constraints.
    An approach is for processing plants to determine and record the natural barcode upon slaughter which remains with the carcass and cut all the way to the grill. Should a food borne problem erupt, a simple assay of the food will then seamlessly link up the supply chain – regardless of whether someone saved the wrapper.
    Here’s some math on the cost of such a device. One instrument can sample 147 animals per day. (One sample means tiny pinch of meat from one animal.) That comes to 53,655 animals per instrument per year, or 268,275 animals over a 5 year depreciation schedule. The 5-year amortized cost of our instrument is $0.37 per animal. Even if one haircuts the numbers in half, it’s still quite cheep.
    By the way, stable isotope analysis is a foolproof way to certify the authenticity of high end product. Hey, is that Kobe beef really from Kobe?
    I hope that helps, and thanks for your interest!!
    Cheers,
    Mike

  • John Munsell

    Frankly, I’d never heard of Stable Isotope Analysis. Mr. Woelk, would it work for boxed beef? For example, one box of Rib Eyes has five rib eyes in it, possibly emanating from five feedlots. Would each cattle feedlot exhibit unique isotope characteristics? Secondly, what would be the cost of your equipment which would be adequately sized for the large slaughter plants to use? And, would a large slaughter plant require several of these machines, if the plant kills thousands of beef daily, and desired to test 5% of their products, as an example, to “mark” such meat with unique origin characteristics?
    My perception is that USDA/FSIS would mandate that the downstream further processing plants purchase Stable Isotope Analysis equipment, while continuing to insulate the monstrous-sized large slaughter plants from performing this task.
    One obvious question which surfaces is whether USDA/FSIS itself should have such equipment located in numerous meat plants across the country? What would equipment cost if the agency were to purchase hundreds or thousands of them? Not every plant would need one, but such equipment must be available within one day for expedited analysis.
    You’ve provided examples of how Picarro’s methodology could work with produce: how would it work on meat cuts? And, please provide us with the potential limitations of your Stable Isotope Analysis protocol. If it could be used for beef, and testing at downstream further processing plants reveal that the meat came from a certain feedlot, but not identify the source originating slaughter plant, my perception is that your technology still will not be capable of determining which slaughter facility contaminated the carcass. Feedlots market cattle through various slaughter plants. The feedlots are NOT the cause of E.coli contamination, until we develop effective vaccines to eliminate e.coli in live animals.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, Montana
    John Munsell

  • Hi John.
    Most people don’t know what a stable isotope is so here’s a little background for you and others. Molecules are comprised of atoms, and atoms are comprised of protons, electrons and neutrons. “Oxygen 18” written as 18O simply has 18 neutrons whereas 16O has 16 neutrons. Neutrons give atoms and molecules mass, which differentiates one molecule of water from another, for example. We primarily focus on isotopes in water and carbon dioxide. Scientists have been using big expensive instruments to precisely measure the ratio’s of these isotopes for various environmental applications for years, but of course few people are equipped to run such devices. We changed that up. Now many of the world’s top biogeo scientists are running our instruments, but we are clearly committed to serving non-scientific communities as well.
    Okay – on to your questions. We just announced a solution to identify cow milk origin, so beef origin is certainly doable. Stable isotope signatures are created by the feed and water cattle consume, so the record is created in the feedlot or pasture not at the slaughterhouse. It’s highly unlikely that stable isotopes could discriminate adjacent feedlots, but quite likely that it they could discriminate feedlots from different counties. So, we could assign origin to each rib eye in a box within those constraints.
    An approach is for processing plants to determine and record the natural barcode upon slaughter which remains with the carcass and cut all the way to the grill. Should a food borne problem erupt, a simple assay of the food will then seamlessly link up the supply chain – regardless of whether someone saved the wrapper.
    Here’s some math on the cost of such a device. One instrument can sample 147 animals per day. (One sample means tiny pinch of meat from one animal.) That comes to 53,655 animals per instrument per year, or 268,275 animals over a 5 year depreciation schedule. The 5-year amortized cost of our instrument is $0.37 per animal. Even if one haircuts the numbers in half, it’s still quite cheep.
    By the way, stable isotope analysis is a foolproof way to certify the authenticity of high end product. Hey, is that Kobe beef really from Kobe?
    I hope that helps, and thanks for your interest!!
    Cheers,
    Mike

  • Steve Briscoe

    Michael,
    Take some chemistry courses, Oxygen never has 16 or 18 neutrons. The 16 or 18 on the “O” is the atomic weight, or sum of the protons and neutrons.
    Best Regards
    Steve

  • In the most technologically advanced country on Earth, it still takes two to three weeks for the FDA to track foodborne illnesses back to the farm or point of origin.
    Mike, You surely haven’t read a thing about Site-Specific recordkeeping and traceback.It can be done in just seconds.
    That’s an eternity for a supply chain that distributes food in 24 hours, and for a human body that sickens and dies from these diseases in hours.
    And Mike, Traceback and trace-up happens in seconds with web-based computer ScoringAg system with a cost to the food chain for a single item traceback at $0.0025 of a USD cent.

  • In the most technologically advanced country on Earth, it still takes two to three weeks for the FDA to track foodborne illnesses back to the farm or point of origin.
    Mike, You surely haven’t read a thing about Site-Specific recordkeeping and traceback.It can be done in just seconds.
    That’s an eternity for a supply chain that distributes food in 24 hours, and for a human body that sickens and dies from these diseases in hours.
    And Mike, Traceback and trace-up happens in seconds with web-based computer ScoringAg system with a cost to the food chain for a single item traceback at $0.0025 of a USD cent.

  • michael Machi

    In order to protect fresh produce supply, we must address vulnerability gaps in our current system at any point along the distribution chain up to the consumer that would allow accidental contamination of fresh produce.
    Ultimately the current USDA/FDA inspection process must be revamped in order to prevent food borne illnesses in fresh produce.
    I spent years as an Executive Vice President for a major terminal business on the East Coast. My primary responsibility was purchasing millions of dollars in California vegetables a year, including Mexico during the winter. I know how this works.
    I notified the CDC in late 2003 that green onions were the likely source of the hepatitis A outbreak and that they were from Mexico, several days before the FDA banned the importation of green onions into the United States.
    If I can be of any further assistance, feel free to contact me at ls40095@gmail.com