New tech traces foodborne illnesses

26th June 2020 | Eativity editors

Foodborne illnesses can have a devastating impact on food producers. Now, new tech has been developed that could allow contaminated food to be traced with pinpoint accuracy.

A few weeks ago we featured a story on Two Hands – an Aussie start-up using smart tagging technology to directly connect fishers and farmers with restaurants and consumers. The tech allows produce to be tracked from source to plate, and helps to eliminate food fraud.

As our global food supply chains become increasingly complex, technology such as Two Hands – which allows us to guarantee the source of our food – can also help to reduce the risk of pandemics such as swine flu, bird flu and, of course, our old friend COVID.

Now new tech out of the US has found a way to trace food origins in a bid to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses like listeria. A few years back, a listeria outbreak in Australia nearly destroyed our rockmelon industry, and producers are still recovering from the fallout.

Harvard Medical School scientists have developed a DNA-barcoded microbial system whereby synthetic spores are safely introduced onto objects and surfaces at a point of origin and can be detected and identified months later.

The process could potentially make the tracing of the exact origin of a contaminated food much simpler. This would allow for more efficient and targeted product recalls, reducing food waste and saving millions in lost revenue.

New tech traces foodborne illnesses
The 2018 Australian rockmelon listeria outbreak rocked the melon industry.

The spores are derived from baker’s yeast and a common bacterial strain used in a wide variety of applications, such as probiotic dietary supplements, and are designed to be incapable of growing in the wild to prevent adverse environmental effects.

“Spores have been safely sprayed onto agricultural goods as soil inoculants or biological pesticides for decades,” says researcher Michael Springer. “We just added a small DNA sequence we can amplify and detect.”

The system could potentially be used to spray DNA-barcoded microbes directly onto paddocks, plants or even floors, and could make it possible to trace a contaminated food not only to the farm it came from, but to a specific field on that farm, or to a particular piece of equipment in a food processing plant.

Food traceability systems are already in place in Australia. They specify that foods can be traced one step backwards and one step forward at any point in the supply chain. But new tech like this could mean that contaminated foods can be traced with pinpoint accuracy.

“Outbreaks of harmful foodborne illnesses such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli occur naturally and frequently,” Springer says. “Simple, safe synthetic biology tools allow us to create things that have a lot of potential in solving real-world safety issues.”