DNA Bar-Coding Leaves Nowhere to Hide

Food and beverage processors concerned about the potential for a product recall need to brace themselves: there could be a flood of recall events coming.

Advances in DNA testing correlate with the number and scope of food recalls over the years. When a genetic match is found between a contaminated product and the bacteria found in swabs from a plant where it was produced, recalls ensue. The impact of faster, cheaper tests is reflected in USDA annual recall summaries: in 2005, 6.4 million lbs. of finished goods were withdrawn from the market in 53 recalls. Last year, there were 94 FSIS recalls totaling 18.4 million lbs.

Food safety recalls are only the tip of an emerging iceberg of mislabeling and adulteration cases brought to light by DNA tests, however. The GNC retail chain announced April 1 it would begin using advanced DNA testing to authenticate the makeup of its private-label supplements as part of a settlement with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. The settlement came in the wake of a herbal supplement recall triggered by DNA tests that showed that packaged ginseng and other products often contained fillers but none of the advertised plants. And FDA is building a fish-species database of DNA bar codes—fragments of the entire DNA sequence of organisms—to quickly identify seafood represented as an expensive species when it actually is an inexpensive one.

FDA is relying on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, but PCR and other methodologies begin with a stated claim of what is being sought, according to Mahni Ghorashi, cofounder and marketing head at GeneStamp Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif. His firm uses an agnostic DNA barcoding methodology that does not require any assumptions and simply details the composition of a food product. Genomic scientists and programmers founded the firm, which Ghorashi described as “a stealth Silicon Valley startup,” in 2013, with a June public launch set.

Speaking April 28 at the Food Leaders Summit, an industry conference sponsored by Food Processing magazine, Ghorashi traced the dramatic cost reductions in genome sequencing since 2002. The DNA barcoding his biotech firm is doing costs about $10 per sample and provides a product profile in 24 hours. In a few years, he predicts costs will decline to “pennies.”

To illustrate the process, Ghorashi cited three profiles developed for products from undisclosed retailers and foodservice companies. DNA testing of a ginseng supplement didn’t find any ginseng, only rice powder, fillers and a trace amount (0.35 percent) of salmonella. The test cannot determine if the bacteria are alive or dead, Ghorashi explained, but its presence was detected.

In analyzing a hamburger, the firm determined that it was 86.52 percent beef and 13.48 percent rat meat, he reported. Safron purchased from a major retailer was composed of 26.8 percent saffron spice, 67.9 percent magnolia and other elements.

For the last two years, GeneStamp has been building a database of branded and private-label packaged foods. “We want to build the Google of foods,” says Ghorashi, to answer questions such as, is a product safe, is it a good value, and “does it conform to my diet and lifestyle?” He envisions a mobile app that will allow shoppers to take a picture of a UPC code and receive a DNA profile of the contents.

That’s probably five years out, he adds. In the meantime, companies like Whole Foods, which has pledged to be GMO-free by 2018, and Starbucks, which is focused on “hyper-transparency,” are likely clients. “The transparency wave is coming, and the food industry needs to jump out in front of it,: says Ghorashi, advising food processors to approach it as an opportunity, not a risk.