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Food Poisoning

Tracing Tainted Food to the Source within an Hour

Foodborne illnesses kill roughly 3,000 Americans each year and about 1 in 6 are sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet according to a January 2015 release from the U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, most contaminated foods are never traced back to their source. That’s because existing methods to track tainted food following its supply chain from table to farm are highly inefficient, jeopardizing the health of millions and costing the food industry billions. A typical process to trace food includes interviewing consumers and suppliers and examining every detail of the supply chain, a tedious method that takes weeks at best to complete.

Now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers, in collaboration with the startup DNATrek, have developed a cost-effective and highly efficient method to accurately trace contaminated food back to its source. Lawrence Livermore originally designed the technology, known as DNATrax, to safely track indoor and outdoor airflow patterns.

The release quotes said George Farquar, an LLNL physical chemist who led a team of researchers that developed the technology for biosecurity applications, as saying, “One of the unexpected capabilities from DNATrax was being able to apply it to food products. You can spray it on food products in the field to identify and track the source of the food.”

DNATrax are particles comprised of sugar and non-living and non-viable DNA that can serve as an invisible barcode. It’s an odorless and tasteless substance that’s been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive, safe for consumption. Think of it as a microscopic barcode that’s sprayed on food at the farm or processing plant.

If the food turns out to be contaminated when it reaches the store or dinner table, DNATrax can be lifted off the food and analyzed in the lab using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to identify the source in an hour. A tainted apple, for example, can be traced back to the orchards by DNATrax to determine when it was picked, who picked it and potentially which tree it came from.

“We all hear horror stories about contaminated foods,” said DNATrek CEO Anthony Zografos, who recently licensed the technology from Lawrence Livermore. “We are not prepared to deal with an outbreak of pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella in tainted foods. However, using DNATrax is a quick and efficient way to stop these foods from sickening more people and costing producers more money due to massive recalls triggered by poor traceability.”

About 128,000 Americans are hospitalized each year from contaminated foods, according to CDC statistics. 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.