Eliminating Blind Spots with NGS
November 7, 2017
A decade ago, very few people in food safety were talking about NGS technologies. A 2008 paper in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry gave an outlook for food safety technology that included nanotechnology, while a 2009 story in Food Safety Magazine discussed spectrometric or laser-based diagnostic technologies. Around the same time, Nature magazine named NGS as its “method of the year” for 2007. A decade later, NGS is taking pathogen characterization and food authentication to the next level.
Over the last 30 years, multiple technology transitions have occurred to improve food safety. In the United States, for example, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) came online in the mid-1990s to reduce illness-causing microbial pathogens on raw products. The move came just a few years after a massive outbreak of E. coli in the U.S. Pacific Northwest caused 400 illness and 4 deaths, and it was clear there was a need for change.
Before HACCP, food inspection was largely on the basis of sight, touch, and smell. It was time to take a more science-based approach to meat and poultry safety. This led to the use of PCR, among other technologies, to better measure and address pathogens in the food industry.
HACCP set the stage for modern-era food testing, and since then, efforts have only intensified to combat food-borne pathogens. In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) took effect, shifting the focus from responding to pathogens to preventing them. Data from 2015 showed a 30% drop in foodborne-related bacterial and parasitic infections from 2012 to 2014 compared to the same time period in 1996 to 1998.
But despite these vast improvements, work still remains: According to the CDC, foodborne pathogens in the Unites States alone cause 48 million illnesses and 3,000 fatalities every year. And every year, the food safety industry runs hundreds of millions of tests. These tests can mean the difference between potentially crippling business operations and a thriving business that customers trust. Food recalls cost an average of $10M per incident and jeopardize public health. The best way to stay ahead of the regulatory curve and to protect consumers is to take advantage of the new technological tools we now have at our disposal.
We believe that food safety systems of the future will be powered by next-generation sequencing (NGS). NGS platforms, like the one Clear Labs has developed, consist of the most modern parallel sequencers available, in combination with advanced databases and technologies for rapid DNA analysis.
These platforms have reduced the cost of DNA sequencing by orders of magnitude, putting the power to sequence genetic material in the hands of scientists and investigators across a range of research disciplines and industries. They have overtaken traditional, first-generation Sanger sequencing in clinical settings over the past several years and are now poised to supplement and likely replace PCR in food safety testing.
NGS platforms using targeted-amplicon sequencing, also called DNA “barcoding,” represent the next wave of genomic analysis techniques. These barcoding techniques enable companies to match samples against a particular pathogen, allergen, or ingredient.
When deeper identification and characterization of a sample is needed, non-targeted whole genome sequencing (WGS) is the best option. Using NGS for WGS is much more efficient than PCR, for example, at identifying new strains that enter a facility. Many food manufacturing plants have databases, created through WGS, of resident pathogens and standard decontamination steps to handle those resident pathogens.
But what happens if something unknown enters the facility?
By looking at all the genomic information in a given sample and comparing it to the resident pathogen database, NGS can rapidly identify strains the facility might not have even known to look for. Indeed, the beauty of these technologies is that you come to expect to find the unexpected.
That may sound overwhelming – like opening Pandora’s box – but we see it as the opposite: NGS offers an unprecedented opportunity to protect against likely threats in food, create the highest quality private databases, and customize internal reporting based on top-of-the-line science and business practices. Knowledge is power, and NGS technologies put that power directly in food companies’ hands. Brands that adopt NGS platforms can execute on decisions about what to test for more quickly and inexpensively – all the while providing their customers with the safest food possible.
NGS platforms provide the clarity to see and address problems directly, giving leading food companies confidence that they are using the most modern, sophisticated food safety technologies available.
As NGS platforms continue to mature in the coming months and years, we look forward to participating in the next jump in food safety – ensuring a safe global food system.