Revolutionising traceability? DNA barcodes track the food, not the package

Featured in Food Navigator

Written by Rachel Arthur | November 19, 2014


Food producers will be able to spray unique DNA barcodes directly onto food to improve traceability, when DNATrax becomes commercially available next year.

DNATrax was originally developed alongside a US government agency for biosecurity purposes, but its creators saw a need for better traceability in the food industry.

They say current technology – which can take weeks to identify the origin of tainted food – is ‘not capable of effectively tracing produce.’ Instead, DNA Trax can provide information within minutes.


‘Barcodes’ on food, not packaging

DNATrax can be sprayed directly onto food. Each set of microparticles has a unique DNA ‘barcode.’ By taking a swab of the surface, traceability information can be obtained from the food itself.

The technology was developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (a US national security facility with research areas including counterterrorism and defense), led by physical chemist George Farquar. It has been licensed to DNATrek, which is working with producers and partners to identify its first commercial customers in the food industry.

Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO, DNATrek, told current technology is not capable of effectively tracing produce from the grower to the dinner table.

“Today’s systems rely on each node in the supply chain to maintain -1/+1 traceability [each node knows the point before and after it in the chain],” he said.

“It is not uncommon to have 12-16 nodes in the food supply chain.

“Every party, every node needs to implement very expensive systems and remain 100% compliant, 100% of the time.  This practically never happens.  If one node drops the ball then traceability is generally lost.

“Even if everyone remains in compliance, traceability information is printed on boxes and cases that contain the produce.  The moment they arrive at retailers, these are recycled or destroyed and the produce is put on display.  As a result the traceability information is lost.”

Consequently, traceback investigations take weeks or – more often – are inconclusive, he added.


Traceability in a matter of minutes

“DNATrax solves this problem by putting the traceability information directly on the produce,” Zografos said. “If there is a piece of produce left somewhere, even in the trash, traceability information can be recovered.  A simple swab of the surface and an off-the-shelf instrument will decode the traceability information in a matter of minutes.”

The DNA barcodes comprise of around 100 DNA bases of synthetically produced nucleic acid, copied from genes unique to a deep-sea organism (and consequently one unlikely to be found in day-to-day conditions). A nearly unlimited variety of different ‘barcodes’ can be developed.

DNATrax can be sprayed directly onto food or mixed in with liquid or dry goods. Zografos says the technology could, theoretically, apply to any foodstuff, although there may be practical limitations due to conditions in the supply chain.

When asked if there would be concerns about DNATrax’s direct contact with food, Zografos said, “The DNATrax material is odorless, colorless and tasteless. It has already been approved as a food additive by the FDA and it is completely safe for human consumption.  The amount of DNATrax material that we would expect to be on a piece of produce would be in the range of ten billionths of a gram.

“There are several formulations of DNATrax; for example we will have a formulation that will be made exclusively with naturally occurring DNA sequences, extracted from seaweed, etc.  We respect people’s sensitivities when it comes to food; our mission is to provide assurance and peace of mind, not make people anxious about what they eat.”


Technology tested by the Pentagon

The initial development of DNATrax was for bio-defence applications, and was funded by DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency), an official US agency for countering weapons of mass destruction. Using specific DNA barcodes, scientists could determine how air particles are distributed through a building, and ascertain the best locations for bio-detection devices.

Scientists then saw an opportunity for the technology in the food industry. “We realized DNATrax could develop a groundbreaking traceability method, something that has never been done before with biological material,” said Zografos. “Biological material has only been used for authentication or identification – not traceability.

“Our backgrounds in human health and safety, our love for fresh, high quality produce and our desire to contribute to human welfare led us to the food traceability idea.”

The development of DNATrax has been completed, and a six month pilot program will be run in the first half of 2015. DNATrax for food traceability will be commercially available in 2015.


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This article was originally posted in Food Navigator. Read it here.

Researchers Develop Spray-On, DNA to Trace Food

Featured in CBS – KPIX

Date: January 7, 2015

LIVERMORE (CBS SF) — Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and a startup firm have developed a spray that can allow contaminated food to be traced back to its source within an hour.

The substance is comprised of sugar and non-living, non-viable DNA that can be sprayed on food products in the field, creating a virtual barcode to track the source of the food, according to LLNL.

The odorless, tasteless substance can be lifted from tainted food and analyzed to quickly determine its source.

Livermore-based DNA Trek is licensing the technology from LLNL. The substance, called DNATrax could allow chemists to trace back tainted produce back to orchards and farms to determine when it was harvested, who picked it and which field or potentially which tree it came from.

The DNATrax can also be used to trace fraudulent food using similar methods.

DNA Trek founder and CEO, Anthony Zografos, is marketing the spray-on DNA to growers. “Our product costs something on the order of one dollar per thousand pounds of produce, certainly cheaper than a nationwide produce recall … So the amount is really insignificant compared to the liabilities one may incur in the event of an outbreak, said Zografos.

Foodborne illnesses kill roughly 3,000 and hospitalize 128,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond health concerns, foodborne illnesses cost the food industry nearly $70 billion annually in the form of recalls and other related costs, according to the FDA.

Existing methods to track tainted food following its supply chain from farms current takes weeks and costs companies billions of dollars.

This post originally appeared on CBS – KPIX. Read it here.

DNA Technology Could Revolutionize Food

Featured in Food Safety News

Date: November 17, 2014

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.”


This article originally appeared on Food Safety News. Read it here.

Spray-on DNA bar codes help trace food-borne illnesses

Featured in The Genetic Literacy Project

Date: November 14, 2014

In the field of forensics, DNA profiling has solved many whodunits over the last forty years. Find a hair on the carpet near the bloodied victim, send it to the labs for testing and compare it to the DNA profiles of known criminals — If the detective finds a match, voila, the crime is solved.

Now scientists are using DNA techniques on errant vegetables, ones that have carried food-borne bacteria and other contaminants such as Salmonella into the homes of their unsuspecting victims. But, in this case, the question’s not so much “whodunit” (the cider in the kitchen with the E. coli) as it is where the contaminated foods originated.

Take the listeriosis outbreak from contaminated melons that killed 30 people in the U.S. in 2011. The key to stopping further fatalities was finding out where those melons came from and alerting people who might have purchased melons from the same place. Who were the growers and what was the distribution chain? (The lines between farm and consumer in the modern world can be very long and very twisted, it’s hardly ever as simple as pointing to a farm down the street from those who become ill.)

By the time people start feeling the symptoms of Salmonella or E. coli poisoning, tracing the origin of the contamination might be tricky, time consuming and expensive. The store may receive produce from multiple farms and have already disposed of shipment boxes. The contamination might not even have occurred on the farm, but somewhere en route as part of the distribution process. But a Californian start-up, DNATrek, has come up with a solution to this conundrum: spray-on DNA barcodes.

In the labs at DNATrek, the scientists create different liquids that each contain a unique DNA sequence. The sequences would be combined with safe-to-eat food additives, such as the waxes that are now sometimes added to the surfaces of apples and cucumbers. Growers, packers, shippers and others in the supply chain would spray food with their unique liquid formulation—stamping the produce with their signature genetic bar code.

If needed in the case of an outbreak, investigators could use polymerase chain reaction technology to decipher the bar code and determine where the produce was grown and what route it had traveled. According to Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO of DNATrek:

If there’s a problem at home and there’s a piece of the cantaloupe left, you can pick it out of the trash, you can scrub the surface, and all the available information is there and you know exactly where it came from.

In only 15 to 20 minutes, scientists would be able to find out all the particulars of the produce. In an outbreak, time is of the essence; lives could be saved. And the technology is relatively inexpensive too. The spray will probably cost $1 for every 1,000 pounds of produce. Compare that to the estimated $150 billion a year that the U.S. directly or indirectly, spends on food-borne illnesses in a year.


This article originally appeared on Genetic Literacy Project. Read it here.

Spray-on DNA seen as produce traceability solution

Featured in The Packer

Date: November 11, 2014

The next generation of produce traceability may be invisible to the naked eye, if the vision of one technology company is realized.

Putting a unique spray-on DNA bar code on fruits and vegetables is a solution that one California startup has embraced as a new commercial opportunity to market to fresh produce suppliers.

A news release from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said that University of Oklahoma students Alyssa Boutelle, Michael Petri and Lauren Gilbert helped develop a new market opportunity for a lab technology known as DNATrax, which is licensed to California startup DNATREK.

The students earlier took part in a San Francisco Bay area internship at i-GATE, an incubator that specializes in helping tech startups expand, according to the release.

The technology was originally designed for air quality applications, but the students examined the technology”s application to fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the release.

“We found that specifically within the food traceability market, the tracking of high-risk commodity foods offered the most promising market entry point for DNATrax,” Petri said in the release.

DNATrax is billed as a safe material containing food-based microparticles that combines FDA-approved sugars and a unique non-biological DNA bar code. Shippers and others in the supply chain would spray food with their signature genetic bar code created in a lab, according to company officials. The DNA sequences could be combined with safe to eat food additives, such as waxes.

Anthony Zografos, chief executive officer of DNATREK, said the company”s tool could be very useful against foodborne illnesses and help identify counterfeit food products, and will undergo a large scale pilot test in 2015.

Petri said in the release that DNATrax could be sprayed on food by produce suppliers at their source. If contaminated food got through the supply chain and reached consumers, the Food and Drug Administration or manufacturer could trace it back to the source by swabbing the food”s surface and testing the samples using a polymerase chain reaction to read the bar code, according to the release Authorities could look up the bar code in the database and immediately know the source of the tainted food, according to the release.

“This is a dramatic improvement over the standard 16 days that are required in a recall to trace back to the source,” Petri said in the release. “Because food products can be traced back more quickly, fewer people will get sick from eating contaminated products, which will result in fewer lawsuits for food processors.”

Zografos said the cost of the product will include a subscription fee to maintain the database of DNA bar codes and a charge of about $1 or less per 1,000 pounds of produce treated. The DNA material can be mixed with any approved food coating material and then applied to produce, he said.

The material, invisible to consumers when applied to produce, is like a bar code in the sense that information can be assigned to different parts of the code, including company information, origin, commodity, field location or other variables.

The material applied to each piece of produce would be in the billionths of a gram, Zografos said.

He said the company plans to conduct a pilot program next year with four to five commodities, possibly including melons, leafy greens and eggs. Commodities initially targeted for possible use of DNATrax are subject to foodborne outbreak risk or a high risk of fraud.

The pilot study will look at the durability of the DNA bar code throughout the supply chain, with third party oversight to evaluate the potential risk of commingling DNA bar code data with commodities come in contact with each other.

“If it is a wax based carrier on the produce, there should not be a risk of commingling,” he said.


This post originally appeared on The Packer. Read it here.

DNA the new weapon against food-borne illnesses

Featured in the San Francisco Chronicle 

Date: November 8, 2014

To prevent and contain outbreaks of food-borne illness, which sicken 1 in 6 Americans annually, a Bay Area startup is developing bar codes that go directly on fruits and vegetables. But you may overlook them: they’re DNA-size.

Using technology invented at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, DNATrek is creating liquids that each contain a unique DNA sequence. The odorless, colorless and tasteless solution peppers the surface of produce, or blends into other oils and liquids, with a genetic bar code that can be identified by a special machine.

The technology could solve the enormous challenge of tracing an outbreak’s source — the places where food items are grown, packed and shipped. When people start feeling the symptoms of salmonella or E. coli, many clues about the contaminated product’s origins, such as the shipment boxes, already have disappeared.

The Food and Drug Administration has already recognized the invention as a safe food additive, but for now, the industry does not use it. After large-scale tests that are set to begin next year, DNATrek believes that its tool will emerge as a powerful weapon against food-borne illnesses, which cost the country an estimated $150 billion a year in health-related expenses, and counterfeit food products, which cost the global industry $10 billion to $15 billion annually.

DNATrek suggests that its bar codes may have come in handy in 2012, when an E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated spinach led 13 people to be hospitalized, and in 2011, when 33 Americans died after eating tainted cantaloupe.

“If there’s a problem at home and there’s a piece of the cantaloupe left, you can pick it out of the trash, you can scrub the surface, and all the available information is there and you know exactly where it came from,” said Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO of the self-funded, three-employee startup that expects to close a round of seed funding by the end of the month.

Safety concerns

Although the company says the DNA sequences are too tiny to be harmful to people or cause genetic changes to the food, some advocates worry they could have unintended consequences for human health and the environment. “DNA does not perform one task, but can have a myriad of unforeseen impacts,” Dana Perls, who tracks food and technology issues for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said in an e-mail.

George Farquar, a physical chemist at Lawrence Livermore, patented the product in 2010 with about $3 million in research funding from the Department of Defense. Originally conceived as a biodefense tool, it combines FDA-approved foodstuffs, such as sugar, and a unique DNA sequence to create safe, inhalable microparticles for the purposes of tracking airflow indoors and outdoors. It has been used to test whether, for instance, air detection systems are able to notice particles that resemble anthrax. Last week, company executives and scientists traveled to the Pentagon to run their third series of tests.

Zografos, a business strategist, got wind of the technology, licensed it and formed a company around it. The biodefense applications were important yet small, he realized, compared with the need for tools that track and maintain food safety.

Farquar and Zografos say growers, packers, shippers and others in the supply chain would spray food with their signature genetic bar code. Up for grabs is an infinite number of potential DNA sequences taken from nature or created in a lab. These would be combined with a safe-to-eat food additive, such as the waxes that are now sometimes added to the surfaces of apples and cucumbers.

Should an outbreak or counterfeiting occur, the produce’s bar code would be detected and identified with a polymerase chain reaction technology, a relatively simple and inexpensive tool used in molecular biology. Regulators could deduce the route the produce had traveled and where the contamination might have begun.

“In 15 to 20 minutes,” Zografos said, “you know exactly where it came from.”

The spray will probably cost $1 for every 1,000 pounds of produce, which Zografos said would add up to significantly less than the costs of recalling produce and treating sickened consumers.

The company stressed that sprinkling bits of DNA on an organism is not the same as genetically modifying one. And at roughly 100 base pairs long, the added DNA is too short to be a health risk or cause changes to the food item, the inventors say.

Different sequences

To ensure that no genetic changes will occur, the company said, DNA would not be paired with similar items: for example, a fruit would be coated with a sequence from a tree or a flower, not a fruit.

“There’s no risk at all to an individual from being exposed to the DNA,” Farquar said.

But Perls, of Friends of the Earth, said the company’s plan to use numerous DNA sequences, instead of just one, “makes it that much more difficult to assess the predictable and unforeseen consequences.”

“I am not clear that mixing the sequence with a substance that has been tested as safe necessarily means that any risks of the new DNA sequences would be rendered safe as well,” she continued. “It doesn’t seem like one would cancel the other out. These sequences are also designed to last. What is the impact of the new particles over time?”

The spray stays on food for about seven weeks before fading away, unless it is scrubbed off before then, the company said. The company said it will seek to confirm safety and effectiveness during its upcoming pilot tests, which will be done in cooperation with growers and producers on five to six types of produce.

To succeed, Zografos and his staff must satisfactorily address safety concerns, educate the public and persuade industry members to get on board, said Jennifer McEntire, chief science officer at the Acheson Group, a strategic consulting firm for food and beverage companies, and a member of the DNATrek advisory board.

If it all works out, she said, the technology could bring a lot to the table.

“Even if you’re not the producer that caused the problem, it would be really nice to be able to prove that ‘I know it couldn’t have been me,’” McEntire said. “The flip side of the coin is to know quickly what was the problem and be able to pinpoint it and address it quickly.”

Stephanie M. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:

This post originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read it here.