By Laurel Maloy, contributing writer, Food Online
European research suggests DNA barcoding can greatly increase speed and accuracy in identifying the origin of contaminated food
DNA Barcoding is the new “cutting edge” technology with the ability to greatly improve the traceability of our food from grower to dining table. The goal is to be able to identify different species from a standardized section of the genome. According to the European Food Information Council and Food Research International, this breakthrough would significantly enhance the ability and speed of discovering the source of contaminated food products. It would also serve to streamline a cumbersome and labor-intensive process. But is it a viable and cost-effective solution?
This latest advancement in traceability is the combination of two widely utilized technologies. In the early 1970s, the very first barcode readers were put into use in grocery stores. Their purpose was to be able to better monitor pricing and inventory while reducing costs. Today virtually everyone knows what a UPC (Universal Product Code) is and has some idea of the information it contains. The other half of the equation is utilizing DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). Since its advent in 1985, DNA testing and its evidentiary use has become routine. DNA, once considered cutting edge, is now used to discern a biological fingerprint with better than 99% accuracy and is deemed commonplace.
The success DNA barcoding will have in improving food’s traceability depends first upon the availability of high quality DNA samples in national repositories. DNA databases for human samples have taken a great deal of time to compile. The same will be true for the vast number of DNA samples to be gathered for the massive amount of food flowing through the supply chain. DNA barcoding success will also depend upon the broad molecular variability between the ever-growing varieties of foods. This, in some instances, has proven to be problematic, particularly in the case of hybridized livestock and poultry.
The goal for DNA barcoding is to always utilize the smallest samples possible, comparing short genetic markers. There are actually no technical limitations to DNA barcoding at the raw material level. However, detractors argue that hybridization occurs at the cultivar level of plants, and thus, would require analysis of larger portions of the genome. This would be more time-consuming, as well as more costly.
Great strides are being made in DNA barcoding throughout Europe. The technology has been used to identify certain types of processed foods, such as fruit in yogurt and juices, tea, purees, and chocolates. However, it should be noted that the very act of processing foods can alter the DNA structure, making the application of DNA barcoding on processed commodities ineffective.
Nevertheless, when it comes to identifying animal and plant species, exclusive gene regions have been identified and approved. Using specialized markers, samples can be sequenced quickly and inexpensively, and are long enough to accurately identify the variations among species.
European researchers have concluded that the idea of using DNA barcoding as a universal tool for traceability has merit. Different regulatory authorities, i.e.: the FDA, USDA, and CDC may use it in different contexts; however, ultimately, this technology would be invaluable to traceability and accountability. There is, though, a whole lot of work to do before it shifts from idea to reality, just like UPC scanning and DNA evidence.
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