How The Marriage of Food & Genomics Will Usher in A New Era of Transparency
by, Mahni Ghorashi
Ever since the $3 billion Human Genome Project catalyzed a nascent industry in 1990, we have seen a revolution in DNA sequencing technologies and in the efficiency of the underlying technology. “Second wave” markets like food, agriculture, and textiles are facing a brave new world brought about by DNA-based technologies.
At Clear Labs, we believe food, which permeates and transforms our everyday lives, is the most exciting industry being shaped by genomics.
Today’s food industry faces a major challenge: consumers increasingly live and shop in fear, doubt, or both. A distinct lack of transparency and high-profile recalls like those issued by Blue Bell, Kraft, and Blue Buffalo have eroded consumer confidence. Label modifiers such as “Gluten-Free,” “Organic,” and “GMO” are now at the forefront of consumer conversations, contributing to the considerable skepticism of the conventional supply chain.
Despite the call for more transparency, the inner workings of the food industry have remained a black box to consumers and retailers alike.
Outdated technology, unfeasible regulations, and the high cost of food testing mean that only a fraction of foods are regularly tested. Often, this means that problems are only detected after people start getting sick.
Enter Clear Labs, food genomics, and DNA barcoding. In the world of food, we stand at the intersection of exploding markets like big data, mobile technologies, and genomics.
DNA barcoding (read all about it here) is an accurate, rapid, and, therefore, cost-efficient means of identifying the particular species of virtually any living being. DNA barcoding has been largely confined to the ivory tower of academia, but that is starting to change.
And now, it’s cheaper than ever. Costs are dropping quickly enough that in the next 5-7 years the technology will literally be placed in the hands of consumers, in the form of handheld scanners that will allow consumers to sequence the DNA of their food in real-time.
For now, however, the technology will primarily be useful to the industry. Here’s just a few ways how:
Eradicating Foodborne Illness and Recalls
The United States’ economy hemorrhages about $7 billion every year due to recall costs, and the food outbreaks amass a significant human cost as well. One in six Americans get food poisoning each year. Three thousand of those cases are fatal.
About one-third of foodborne illness outbreak investigations end without identifying the source of the tainted item. Until recently, it has been impossible to know whether the same food source infected two people with the same strain of pathogen.
Clear Labs’ genomic testing of food and DNA barcoding has tremendous potential as technology that is fast and scalable, making possible a supply chain in which many more food samples are tested (almost in real time) as they flow from supplier to manufacturer to retailer.
It’s an upheaval of the traditional food-industry business model that allows food producers and manufacturers to catch problems before they even make it to the grocery store shelves.
Eliminating Food Fraud, Once and for All
If you remember the horsemeat scandal that rocked the European Union, you know that the food industry is facing a huge problem with food fraud. It is a $49B global counterfeit industry that is unfortunately the new normal.
The kind of food-testing technology that Clear Labs employs aims to block food fraud by getting to the molecular root of the problem, and combat mislabeling.
Beyond Food Safety: Food Quality
We also have our sights set far beyond safety issues and into the realm of assessing food quality. We want to shift from a good system that protects people from getting sick to a great system that can focus on making people happier and healthier.
Think wine and beer.
That vintage Napa Valley red is privy to its own special set of microbes corresponding to its own distinct musts, just as a Bordeaux has its own set of microbes and must. Similarly, two research teams from White Labs and a Belgian genetics laboratory, are creating the first genetic family tree for brewing yeasts and the beers they make with them.
With this information, we expect to see the average quality of wine and beer – and food products in general – increase significantly in the coming years.
Technology is quite literally eating the world, and it was only a matter of time before it sat down to dine on the food industry. Just as Uber and Airbnb rose to fame by disrupting industries with an old-school mindset, food tech will continue to change the landscape of the global food industry -- with retailers, manufacturers and other supply chain players first in line. Are you ready?
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