One in six Americans gets food poisoning every year, and even innocuous-seeming treats like lowly caramel apples run the risk of causing devastating illnesses. Investigations and recalls are very time-sensitive, and now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers say they’ve developed a new technique for expediting food-chain traceability. DNATrax was developed to help establish evacuation routes in the event of things like anthrax attacks, but in its food-safety-related application it is deployed as a sugar- and DNA-based additive sprayed right onto food. The microscopic substance serves as a sort of barcode that can be picked up and amplified via polymerase chain reaction in a lab, and in theory enables investigators to trace a tainted apple back to the orchard it came from, along with data points pertaining to “when it was picked, who picked it, and potentially which tree it came from.”
Overall, it’s a novel approach to food-chain transparency. Its success would hinge on how thoroughly it was adopted throughout the industry, but in theory the product and detection technique could cut the spread of severe outbreaks of food-borne illness before they have a chance to spread, and possibly kill; the CDC puts the annual death toll of food-borne illnesses at 3,000.
The detection technique could also be bad news for food counterfeiting criminals. The team imagines one additional use could be to figure out who’s mislabeling or diluting premium products like wine or olive oil — a multi-billion-dollar industry. Add DNATrax to olives as they’re being pressed into oil, for example, and if the product is tampered with or diluted during the olive oil’s journey through the food supply chain, analysis will reveal by how much, exactly, and in theory could give investigators a clue about where to look for culprits.