Written by Quin Chou, Nicole Herbold, and Lucia Cerrillo
Written by Quin Chou, Nicole Herbold, and Lucia Cerrillo
Featured in the Genetic Literacy Project
Written by Richard Owen | January 21, 2021
Few technologies can transform the relationship between growers and consumers like the promise of transparency. And with Covid, many of us demand even greater assurance that our food supply chain is as safe as possible. How are growers, distributors, processors, and grocery stores implementing transparency at each point in the supply chain?
I have been working in the agriculture industry for a long time. Over 30 years to be exact. But it wasn’t until I entered the highly-perishable fresh produce sector a decade ago that I gathered a true appreciation for how complicated – and how powerful – a transparent supply chain can be.
For many deep-rooted and emotional reasons, consumers have a close relationship with their fresh produce, scanning the produce aisle high and low for just the right piece of fruit to take home. And if at a farmer’s market, they’ll often quiz the farmer on how the product was grown, what crop protection products were used, and when was it picked. Arguably, the consumer’s relationship with fruits and vegetables is the most complicated one in the supermarket.
Those are the old days. Or at least that is the past, and singular, view of how consumers connect with the most perishable of products in their shopping cart.
The promise of technology and its impact on transparency will forever change the produce aisle, just like moving from 3G to 5G technology.
When I speak to consumers about transparency, they reflect with varied responses. Some will say they want to get to know the specific grower that produced the beans or apples. What type of land was the crop raised on? What chemicals were sprayed, if any? What similar products can I purchase from that particular farmer?
When I speak with growers, transparency means building deeper loyalty with retailers and the consumers they serve (with hopes the loyalty is returned). But equally important, it’s a way to keep track of the product in case of food safety inquiries and also ensuring the quality of food arriving at its final destination — a nudge for growers to improve transparency.
Like with most technologies, there must be a benefit for increased transparency to become more ubiquitous. The most tangible benefit is financial, of course. That could come in the form of cost savings by eliminating a portion of the supply chain, or through increased margin at the checkout stand demanded by a premium label.
At the same time, it could also be an opportunity to protect market share. We’ve all seen the many recalls for romaine lettuce. We’re told of a few brands and bar codes to be aware of, but how do they know? The ability to trace-back a product to a particular warehouse or field is very important for a retailer and the consumer.
In the case of a food safety incident, quick trace-back can mean the difference between a small recall involving one or two growers, or a larger investigation that involves tens of millions of dollars of impacted product. And, if consumers fall ill from the incident, a bruised reputation for the retailer or brand, regardless of the outcome.
According to a 2020 study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Label Insight, shoppers have higher expectations for transparency when shopping online compared to in-store. Think back to the early days of COVID-19. According to FMI, online grocery purchases soared to 27% of all grocery spending for the March/April period of this year, compared to 14% in February.
This increase in online sales will undoubtedly drive consumers’ interest in a more transparent system. Why? In the store, you can look and feel the product you are about to purchase. Online, you need something more to tell the complete story of a product – how it was grown, when it was picked, size, and other quality attributes. That’s where transparency fills the gaps.
When you go to a grocery store, what do you want to know about your fruits and veggies? Why would you pick a particular brand of berries over another? Or what is it that you like about a particular store’s produce section? We often look for certain benefits when we purchase a product. It starts with the basics of getting a good product at a fair price. But beyond that, transparency helps the consumer make a purchase.
According to IRI Research, “consumers are more concerned than ever about where their food comes from. They are not only making their concerns widely known on social media; they are editing their shopping lists based on those concerns”. Not a surprise to see that the food transparency trend is growing, especially in the younger generations.
The effect of transparency on purchase decisions is even starker among the Millennial generation. According to a Snacking Trends Report, this demographic is increasingly making purchasing decisions based on “the tenets of self, society, and planet”, which feeds into sustainability.
Farmer acceptance of transparency technology is growing for multiple reasons. In the case of fresh produce, transparency allows the grower to look for efficiencies in the supply chain. Not only with their operation, but in the part of the chain above and below them.
Through an open purchasing platform, a grower may learn what the distributor pays the manufacturer for inputs, which puts them in a better negotiating position with the distributor, or even directly with the manufacturer.
Going the other direction in the supply chain, a grower may be able to directly access consumer insights on their products and brand. In the past, that information may have been maintained by retailers or distributors that, in turn, passed it along to the grower. The net result of this shift is quicker and better-informed decisions about what to grow.
And more importantly, they can look for particular attributes to provide the highest return from the marketplace. Similar to the consumer, it often comes down to economics: can I increase my revenue or lower my costs through the use of new technology that pulls up the shades somewhere else in the supply chain?
New technology has a way of telling the story of ‘what’s possible’. Here are two promising examples:
Founded in 2013, a Californian company called SafeTraces developed DNA “barcodes” that can be added to fruits and vegetables via a liquid spray or wax. What’s so special about that? The company takes a small piece of synthetic DNA from organisms not typically found in the produce section – like seaweed – which they mix with trace amounts of sugar and create a sprayable solution. According to the company, the spray is odorless, tasteless, and poses no food safety risk.
If a problem with the product arises, the DNA on the surface can be swabbed and identified within minutes. Placing the DNA barcode directly on fresh produce significantly reduces the potential for traceback information to be lost. Produce boxes, which traditionally carry the tracking information, are discarded long before anyone catches on to a problem.
In a different twist on innovative traceability technology, software company HarvestMark partnered with iFood Decision Sciences to create a solution that allows consumers to not only view each step along the supply chain, but to provide feedback and reward those brands they feel are doing the best job of transparency.
The product information is collected and shared with the consumer on an item-level basis. The consumer has instant feedback linked to the product’s age, origin, and location. This allows the grower to see how a specific product performs on the grocery store shelf and then make short and long-term production decisions.
In addition to the quality and analytical measurements provided to the grower, like temperature control, inventory monitoring, and supplier notifications, this traceability system also provides a mechanism for product recall in case there is a food safety incident.
The real power of the HarvestMark technology comes through the integration of both the consumer and analytical supply-chain feedback. A highly perishable raspberry variety, for example, might have great flavor and visual appeal according to consumer feedback. Through the analytics of the traceability software across the supply chain, the grower can maximize the shelf-life of the raspberries and reduce perishability at the store level. The result is increased income for both the grower and the retailer…and a happy customer who returns for repeat business.
The promise of this technology will be optimized even further using blockchain applications, which enables the industry to share data up and down the supply chain while maintaining the integrity of the data at each source.
A demand for transparency stems from both the consumer and the farmer in the hopes of ensuring affordability, safety, and sustainability. Implementing these advances will radically change supply chains in the years ahead. And although consumers may only notice slight differences in the produce section, we’ll reap its benefits by paying less for safer food that’s less likely to end up in the garbage.
Richard Owen has been a part of the Produce Marketing Association since 2009, when he joined as Director of Global Business Development and has served as Vice President of Global Membership and Engagement for the past three years. Find Richard on Twitter @richardo_pma
Featured in the AIHA Blog
Written by Erik Malmstrom, CEO of SafeTraces | December 22, 2020
2020 has been a wake-up call for the built environment. For years, indoor air quality has been a problem hidden in plain sight. Scientific research has detailed the scale and extent of this challenge, as well as the real human consequences evidenced in degraded cognitive function, illnesses, and absenteeism.
However, the current pandemic has elevated indoor air quality to an urgent matter of life and death. Infectious disease experts, including the CDC, have arrived at consensus regarding the significance of airborne and aerosol-based transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Moreover, viral infection has shown to be 18 times more likely indoors than outdoors, leading to a state of paralysis in much of the built environment.
The good news is that we know that air ventilation and filtration can make a major difference in mitigating airborne exposure risk indoors. According to the AIHA’s Guidance Document “Reducing the Risk of COVID-19 Using Engineering Controls” (PDF), “Engineering controls (including ventilation and filtration) that can keep infectious aerosols at very low levels indoors offer the greatest promise to protect non-healthcare workers and other vulnerable populations as we reopen our businesses and workplaces.”
The bad news is that the pandemic has exposed a critical gap in the toolbox of industrial hygienists and mechanical engineers—a science-based, data-driven diagnostic solution for verifying engineering controls in real-world indoor environments. Today, many rely on carbon dioxide monitors, computational fluid dynamic modeling, mathematical calculations, and even smoke and bubble testing, none of which accurately approximate the risk of infectious aerosols.
Our company offers the first diagnostic solution for verifying ventilation and filtration-focused engineering controls, specifically for infection control, through a novel methodology that safely mimics aerosol mobility and exposure levels with DNA-tagged tracer particles. During the pandemic, we have supported clients spanning commercial real estate, industrial plant operations, and public infrastructure, providing us the following key insights:
In conclusion, it is paramount for all occupants and professionals to understand if the HVAC system and engineering controls are actually helping or not in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Emerging technologies have tremendous potential to provide a more accurate understanding of real-world occupational health and safety risk and mitigate this risk based on science and data.
– Erik Malmstrom
Erik Malmstrom is CEO of SafeTraces, a Bay Area technology company and provider of DNA-enabled diagnostic solutions for indoor air quality. Further information can be found at www.safetraces.com.
Written by Krista Earl of TagOne | December 7, 2020
Ingredient traceability. Once merely a concern for select consumers and extraordinarily transparent brands, has become a more frequent concern of consumers and has been highlighted in the FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” initiative. The FDA, retailers and consumers are increasingly invested in the safety, efficacy and quality of the ingredients and their source that are the foundation of what we are putting in our bodies. This foundation is built on one of the key components in “The New Era of Smarter Food”: Tech Traceability. Tech traceability will combine a culture, best practices and technology to enable your organization to know, at a minimum, who provided your ingredients, and who purchased your ingredients. Sounds simple, right? Well, it depends. Let’s look further at the steps which will help you effectively manage your supply chain.
It Starts with Culture
Implementing a company culture that is focused on quality is critical to ensure that you have a safe, detailed process that keeps your consumers safe. The problem, however, is that many companies are not living up to these standards, and do not have the proper process in place to capture and analyze critical data and documents throughout their supply chain. As recently as August 2020, a salmonella outbreak in onions caused 167 hospitalizations nationally. A study by Countless investigations around the globe have uncovered mislabeled ingredients and unsafe handling of consumable food products. A study by the Journal of American Medicine identified that less than 50% of CBD products had accurate labeling. The result? Consumers aren’t trusting food and supplement companies anymore. Additionally, this drives up legal fees and insurance premiums.
So, what can you do to protect yourself now?
Taking it to the Next Level
Building a great brand starts with building a great product. Yes, we can drive sales and have nice packaging, but your product is a compilation of all the ingredients and critical events in your supply chain. The companies that master quality and their supply chain and know where all their ingredients came from, will win by developing a reputation of excellence leading to trust from consumers and retailers.
– Krista Earl, Marketing Coordinator at TagOne.
Aerosols in COVID-19 Transmission
Written by Erik Malmstrom, CEO of SafeTraces | May 27, 2020
In an April 14 New York Times article titled “Stay 6 Feet Apart, We’re Told. But How Far Can Air Carry the Coronavirus,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, posed a question with enormous implications for global health and safety as we return to shared spaces in the absence of a vaccine and reliable rapid testing:
“The question is what does it take for you to get infected? And that I think is the trillion-dollar question we have…maybe all it takes is an aerosol. You don’t need any droplets at all.”
Dr. Osterholm highlights one of the critical “known unknowns” of COVID-19 – the transmission role of aerosols, or particles under five microns in diameter that are emitted while talking and breathing, that can stay suspended in air for hours, and that can travel over 20 feet.
Currently, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of six feet separation in public assumes that large droplets from coughing and sneezing are the principal means of COVID-19 transmission and that most large droplets drop to the ground within six feet.
However, a chorus of prominent experts have emphasized the role of aerosols and air flow as a potentially important transmission vehicle for COVID-19, with emerging scientific research lending credence to their argument:
What does the potential for airborne transmission of COVID-19 via aerosols mean for the air that we breathe in shared spaces that many of us will be returning to?
On this matter, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a leading professional association whose guidance is widely referred to by facility managers, published a position document on infectious aerosols in April stating:
“Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes in building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, can reduce airborne exposures.”
Given the complexity, urgency, and our evolving understanding of the risk presented by COVID-19 aerosols, practical application of ASHRAE’s guidance is easier said than done. In our experience, the airborne transmission risk is not always well-understood by facility managers and therefore insufficiently accounted for in reopening plans. Moreover, there is a notable gap in diagnostic tools available for assessing the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors.
Based on groundbreaking technology developed with the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), our veriDART solution for verifying safe indoor airflows fills this gap. veriDART leverages proprietary airborne tracers that safely mimic the mobility of airborne pathogens like COVID-19 in order to identify high-risk transmission vectors, assess the efficacy of filtration, ventilation, and anti-microbial solutions, and instill public trust and confidence in buildings for safe occupancy.
Joseph Allen, Director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said, “The evidence suggests that mitigating airborne transmission should be at the front of our disease-control strategies for COVID-19.” As facility managers gradually reopen buildings while preparing for a potential second wave of viral outbreak this fall, veriDART is a powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19 – and gets us a step closer to answering the trillion-dollar question.
Please follow up to learn more and become an early adopter.
Expanding Traceability to New Industries
Date: May 18, 2020
We hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
We wanted to provide an update on exciting developments at SafeTraces. At our core, our company is a mission-driven organization committed to solving the biggest, toughest safety challenges in the world. Until recently, we have been exclusively focused on food and agriculture-based applications of our technology. And for good reason. There is tremendous need for technology-enabled solutions for food safety and authenticity – consumers demand it, regulators mandate it, and food companies invest in it as a key source of value and competitive advantage.
Our miniDART and saniDART solutions represent major technological breakthroughs for food safety. miniDART is the first and only on-food traceability solution, leveraging edible, invisible DNA-based barcodes (FDA GRAS) that are applied directly to the food or ingredient and that a downstream purchaser can read with a rapid, inexpensive, on-site test to verify product source and authenticity. saniDART is the first rapid solution for verifying sanitation effectiveness at a microbial level to receive approval from AOAC-International, the gold standard for proprietary testing methods in food safety.
However, in recent months, opportunities beyond food and agriculture have increasingly demanded our attention for three important reasons. First, COVID-19 has created seismic global health and economic challenges that our technology is uniquely suited to help mitigate. Second, many companies outside of food and agriculture have sought our support, seeing our technology as a valuable solution to safety and security challenges confronting their operations. Third, our technology is highly versatile, enabling deployment in a wide variety of applications at scale. And that is why we have been compelled to support two other global industries facing enormous, urgent challenges:
COVID-19 represents an unprecedented threat to public health and the global economy. As of mid-May 2020, Johns Hopkins counts nearly 300,000 deaths and four and a half million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally in less than six months, sadly with these statistics forecasted to continue increasing until a vaccine is successfully developed.
Ranging from office buildings to nursing homes to food processing plants, the virus presents a major safety and health risk to the built environment given the complexity of airflows and the risk of airborne transmission. Currently, property managers lack adequate tools for assessing and mitigating this risk safely.
In response, we are excited to launch veriDART, our groundbreaking solution that leverages airborne tracers that safely mimic the mobility of pathogens like COVID-19 in order to verify safe airflows for building occupancy and re-occupancy. veriDART empowers property managers with a powerful tool to identify high-risk transmission vectors, ensure effective filtration, ventilation, and other protective measures, and target remediation actions. veriDART draws on SafeTraces’ deep expertise in surrogate particle development, built over years with support from leading institutions like the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the $200 billion global market for counterfeit drugs, touching nearly every therapeutic class, kill hundreds of thousands of people annually. Additionally, counterfeit nutraceuticals pose a serious threat to consumers as more than 50% of FDA Class I recalls between 2004 and 2012 were for dietary supplements. Product security stops at the unit of sale level, enabling significant risk of fraud, adulteration, and diversion during manufacturing and distribution.
To meet this growing need, we have introduced our on-dose traceability solution that leverages edible, invisible, FDA-GRAS, DNA barcodes that are mixed with coating or ingredients and applied to directly to pharmaceutical and nutraceutical pills during regular production. In turn, downstream supply chain partners can verify the authenticity, origin, and safety of a dose or its ingredients within 25 minutes more accurately and reliably than with traditional packaging-based serialization.
In closing, broadening our mission to ensure the highest safety standards of the food we eat, the medicine we take, and the air we breathe is an exciting and natural evolution of our company. Now more than ever, people demand transparency and assurances from food companies, drug manufacturers, and property managers regarding their safety practices. We are honored to tirelessly support our customers in making a better, safer world.
Erik has been a leader at the intersection of agriculture and technology in senior roles at Farmers Business Network, Cargill, and the White House. He is a co-founder of CrossBoundary, a leading frontier market investment advisor, and is a combat veteran and graduate of U.S. Army Ranger and Airborne Schools. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a joint M.B.A. – M.P.P. from Harvard Business and Kennedy Schools.
Lessons in COVID-19
Date: March 25, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our dangerous lack of public health readiness to contain the rapid spread of a deadly virus in the US, demonstrated by our insufficient testing capabilities and our inability to effectively track and trace in the early days of the outbreak. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging, it is fair to question the US food system’s preparedness for pandemics in which food has greater potential to be a carrier. Identifying and addressing weaknesses now has the potential of mitigating the risk of catastrophic health and economic consequences in the future.
In the US, a multi-stakeholder coalition of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Authority (FDA), Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Authority (USDA-FSIS), and state and local public health authorities is responsible for responding to infections and outbreaks transmitted through food. Enacted in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) upgraded the US food safety system for produce and processed food, governed by FDA, by requiring stronger tracking of foodborne illnesses, stronger oversight of food production, stronger preventive controls, and empowering FDA with mandatory recall authority. However, at the time of FSMA’s enactment, Congress did not simultaneously upgrade safety standards for meat and poultry, governed by USDA-FSIS, with food recalls continuing to be almost all voluntary and initiated by manufacturers and distributors.
Consequently, critics believe that fragmentation of the food safety system in the US has resulted in “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”¹ Moreover, the current system has led to bifurcated outcomes – total produce and processed food recalls governed by FDA have decreased 34% since the implementation of new food safety plans for food companies in 2016, with the most hazardous recalls (Class I) dropping 54%. Meanwhile, total meat and poultry recalls governed by USDA-FSIS have increased 65% since 2013, with the most hazardous recalls (Class I) increasing by 85%.²
Technological modernization is another challenge and opportunity for food safety. In 2019, the FDA launched a major initiative called “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety” in order to “leverage technology and other tools, to create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system.”³ In many respects, the US food industry lags behind other industries with respect to its level of technological sophistication for ensuring the safety and security of its supply chain. One of the most glaring gaps between current food industry practice and commercially available technology used in other industries pertains to rapid testing for food safety and traceability. As we’ve seen with South Korea and other Asian countries that have most effectively responded to COVID-19, deploying rapid testing, tracking, and tracing technology in healthcare, early and often, can have a decisive impact on containment. Similarly, rapid testing, tracking, and tracing technology is extremely valuable in identifying and removing lethal contaminants in the food chain.
Currently, much of the food industry employs outdated low-tech solutions for food safety and traceability. These solutions have repeatedly demonstrated their shortcomings with fatal consequences. Over the past two years, high-profile recalls of romaine lettuce, beef, and flour, among others, due to e.coli contamination not only failed to identify contaminated product before it hit retail shelves and endangered the lives of consumers. Disturbingly, post-recall investigations often took months to complete, failed to identify the original source of contamination, and failed to prompt meaningful reform of food safety practices.
Recognizing an unmet need in the food industry, our company developed the first and only on-food traceability solution, leveraging edible, invisible DNA-based barcodes (FDA Generally Recognized As Safe) that are applied directly to food and that a downstream purchaser can read with a rapid, inexpensive, on-site test. Our solution is especially valuable in food chains with elevated risk of pathogenic contamination, counterfeiting, and environmentally destructive sourcing practices, where verifying product provenance and authenticity rapidly is vital and where traditional packaging and paper documentation-based methods of tracking and tracing have proven to be ineffective, slow, and vulnerable to tampering and error.
Additionally, we developed a groundbreaking rapid sanitation verification solution to quantify the microbial load reduction of cleaning and sanitation in food processing facilities, and thereby significantly mitigate the risk of pathogenic contamination being present in consumer food. While traditional solutions often require sending samples to a third-party lab and waiting days for results long after food product has left a food processing facility, our solution provides results on-site within 20-25 minutes, enabling food processors to make in-process corrective actions and ultimately protecting consumers. We represent one of many innovative food tech companies, several of whom we partner closely with, with breakthrough technology to deliver on the lofty ambitions of the FDA’s “New Era of Food Safety” initiative.
While several market leading food companies have jumped at the opportunity to work with us, occasionally we have received positive feedback from others, but with the disappointing qualifier that they will not purchase our solutions unless regulators impose more stringent requirements upon them. Moreover, many of these same companies recognize food safety risks in their supply chains but believe that liability resulting from the powerful food safety data provided by our solutions, particularly if available to regulators and auditors, outweighs the risk of maintaining the status quo and the potential of being implicated in a food recall. In other words, otherwise good actors felt that they would be penalized for doing the right thing and proactively bolstering their food safety program.
Amid sky-high concerns about COVID-19, consumers may ultimately be a greater driver for significant food safety reform and modernization than regulators. Already, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of fresh products with greater likelihood of multiple human touchpoints. Moreover, consumers are demanding greater visibility into food chains and corresponding safety measures being taken, rewarding leaders and punishing laggards. According to an extensive global Nielsen study, “the product benefit consumers were most willing to pay premium for were those with high quality assurances and verifiable safety standards,” with 49% of consumers globally saying that “they were highly willing to trade up in price for this benefit.”
In response to the 2008 financial crisis, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel famously stated, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” To Emmanuel’s maxim, I would add the corollary, “Technology is a terrible thing to waste.” Groundbreaking technologies like ours and others have the potential to dramatically enhance the safety and security of our food system in good times and bad. However, this potential will only be realized if the food industry is incentivized and compelled to modernize by consumers and regulators, and to bring technology off the sidelines and into the fight. They should seize the opportunity to act now before it is too late. Our company and other innovative food tech companies stand ready.
– Erik Malmstrom
Erik Malmstrom is CEO of SafeTraces, a Bay Area technology company and provider of DNA-enabled diagnostic solutions for indoor air quality. Further information can be found at www.safetraces.com.