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.


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