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DNA Spray-On Technology Could Revolutionize Food Traceability

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.”

© Food Safety News
  • David Pisanick

    Very interesting concept. I like the idea of trace-ability and the safety that it provides. This will surely come under scrutiny due to the fact that it is all focused on DNA, albeit it’s not genetic modification, just an ‘ink’ that can be read via it’s DNA signature. Nice it’s new and not understood it will make people nervous.

    • Bev

      I react badly to some seaweed and other sea products because of the iodine. They are using seaweed as a tracer. Where does this leave me? Open to reactions? Probably yes.

      • DaHunt

        They are not using seaweed, just a small amount of DNA from it. Its a pure isolate with no iodine or anything. Just as you buy an apple from the store you don’t get the whole tree with it.

    • HydrogenBond

      I’m very curious to see where this goes, and how they ID the plant in 15 minutes. That sounds pretty optimistic to me!

  • Luann Chandler

    I am allergic to onion. If they used an onion based product to spray fruit and fresh vegetables, I would be deprived of any fresh food at all. What is someone is allergic to kelp or some form of sea weed? This person is at risk to eat what those of us who suffer from allergies, would normally safely buy . I’m not impressed with anything that is added for any reason at all. Fresh fruit and veggies should be exactly that, fresh, without any added anything.

    • HydrogenBond

      No, you wouldn’t. The allergens aren’t present in the DNA of an onion. Spraying DNA tags on food is an odd idea, but a harmless one.

  • Marge Mullen

    Great as we bite into the apple we not only eat GMO’s but questionable seaweed!!

  • HydrogenBond

    I can’t say for sure what techniques they use to get the DNA, but DNA is (in general) pretty easy to separate from proteins.

  • Dennis-the-menace

    I’m so disgusted. Every single fruit I buy these days has these stickers on them. Paper stickers with glue from who knows where?? The paper itself must come from recycled cardboard boxes or who knows what. The paper used for these stickers may come from GMO plants. I try to peal off those stickers, no luck. The glue remains. Could the glue come form Horse hooves, or worse ELMERS. Uuuuuugghh

  • Dennis

    Oh my gooodddness. I was only worried about the worm’s DNA. You know how I hate those stickers they put on our fruits. The paper could be recycled cardboard from who knows where? These darn things are so hard to peel off! I will not eat the stickers if I can help it. And that glue! I try my very best, but I’m not sure I get that off. Is it horse hoof glue (with DNA), or worse ELMERS (with Chemicals of death)? I can not get that glue off sometimes. Now a bit of DNA??? If they could scan that at the checkout… wow. What an improvement. At least there is no paper (with DNA), or glue (with DNA), or the sweat from the picker (with DNA), middle man (DNA?), or grocers (with DNA), and of course all that bacterial contamination with it’s DNA. Just wash the fruit first then use the DNA spray-on plus a little triclosan and I’ll be sooooo happy.

  • Ron

    Implementation and integration has to be affordable. There is no doubt it is an intelligent innovation. The question is; how much more will this cost processors and the like per pound? It not only has to be intelligent, it has to be affordable. Thus far, those trying to enter the food industry with DNA have not been very successful since it has been introduced. I first saw DNA entering the food industry about 6 years ago and thus far none have been successful financially thusfar…