Genomics and the Future of Food Safety

The beef recall is expanding, and so is consumer and industry concern. When you read about genomics, food safety probably isn’t the first word that pops into your head. However, researchers across North America are working on DNA traceability and food safety projects.

Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta, is part of a team looking at using DNA to improve ground meat product traceability.

“The idea is that if there is a problem, that we could use this technology to narrow down the window where the contamination has occurred,” Plastow said.

Large processors tend to combine meat from several individual animals in one batch, making it difficult to isolate contamination sources.  Packers could use DNA testing to pinpoint contaminated batches and issue targeted food safety recalls.

IdentiGEN is working with Plastow and his colleagues on the traceability project. Ciaran Meghen, IdentiGEN’s managing director, said DNA technology is improving and costs dropping.

“It’s feasible to put a DNA tracing structure into any meat supply chain and for the impact on price to be measured in pennies per pound of the finished product or less.”

South of the border, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working with several other organizations to create a database to help them handle food safety issues. Researchers plan to map the DNA of over 100,000 foodborne pathogens, including E. coli, over the next five years. The DNA sequences will be added to the database.

Scientists in the United States can identify foodborne pathogens in about a week right now. Once the database is up and running, they’ll be able to identify pathogens within days or hours.

DNA traceability is also being looked at by the pork industry, though its primary purpose isn’t food safety. Sturgeon Valley Pork already has DNA traceability to prove their product is premium Alberta pork.

Dr. Dan Hurnik, swine research chair at the University of Prince Edward Island, has been working on using DNA to trace swine to specific sires. His previous research looked at using DNA to trace meat cuts back to the farm.

“If they’re using a specific set of sires for a specific production stream, anywhere along the way they can verify that this pig came out of this productions stream. It’s an efficient way to put traceability into the production system,” Hurnik said.

Consumers certainly carry some responsibility to make sure their food is safe. As Lyndsey Smith of points out, meat cuts from large packing plants aren’t the only products susceptible to E. coli contamination. The bacteria infect organic and local meats, too, along with fruits and vegetables. Keeping things clean, keeping meat cool until it’s ready to cook, and cooking meat until it reaches a safe internal temperature will go a long way.  Read more food safety tips put together by Smith here.

Industry and government agencies need to do their part, too. While new technology isn’t a magic pill that will cure all our food safety ills, it has great potential to improve food safety recalls and save lives.

For more information, see the following blog posts:

FDA hopes new database will speed pathogen identification in foodborne illness outbreaks

DNA traceability improves food safety, proves premium meat brands

Canadian researchers aim to improve food safety recalls and population estimation methods

DNA traceability systems coming to commercial pork production
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