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DNA Testing for Food Could Make Listeria Outbreaks a Thing of the Past

It could also put an end to mislabeled fish species.


A food analytics company in the Bay Area could put an end to food-related illness outbreaks as we know them. According to Wired, a startup called Clear Labs is hoping "to change how manufacturers manage the food supply" by using DNA testing.

The company claims it has assembled "the world’s largest database of food genetic markers." Wired explains how such a database could be utilized for food manufacturers:

By identifying the species of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi in a sample, they can suss out the authenticity of an ingredient (whether the fish in those fish sticks is really what you think it is). They can also tell if a food is contaminated by microbes, contains an allergen, or has certain genetically modified ingredients.

While existing chemical technology has allowed companies to test their food products for contamination for years, DNA barcoding is much more comprehensive: It tests for everything at once, meaning "even if you just wanted to check to see whether your fish is albacore and not escolar, the markers used by Clear Labs would also pick up bacterial contamination if it happens to be there."

Since they can be done in batches, these tests are also much cheaper, which the company is hoping to mean that "food manufacturers will test more and sooner" — and new Food & Drug Administration guidelines may force manufacturers’ hands in that regard. Last week the FDA issued more strict rules for food manufacturers that are intended to prevent situations like the recent Blue Bell listeria outbreak that killed three people. The new rules mean manufacturers will have to take proactive measures to reduce risks, instead of only reacting once an outbreak actually occurs.

Besides potentially saving lives, companies proactively testing their products for contamination could also save them millions of dollars: The Blue Bell recall led the company to the brink of extinction (although it's now making a comeback), and Ohio-based Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams also suffered a listeria outbreak that forced it to temporarily close its shops and destroy millions of dollars worth of product.