Traceable molecules, traceable food

Earlier this week, we posted an article titled "Corn-o-phobia," a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of chemical analysis for verifying the dietary history of the animal that produced a cut of beef. While the article poked a little fun at the fussiness of some consumers, the issues of traceability and process verification are very real in today's food industry.

Growing numbers of consumers want details about the meat they purchase. If the label says "natural," "grass-finished" or "humanely raised," they want documentation to back up those claims. And the fact is, consumers are in charge. If they want specific, documented attributes in their food, and are willing to pay for them, that's what they should get.

After the Corn-o-phobia article ran on, we received a note from Iain Green, with Picarro Inc., about a real and practical application of "stable isotope analysis" for meat traceability and process verification. Picarro manufactures analytical testing instruments and processes for, among other things, measuring carbon isotopes in air, water and food.

Picarro's instruments can do more than verify whether beef comes from an animal that was truly "grass finished." They can reveal a variety of secrets regarding what, where and when animals were fed, offering a level of traceability beyond that provided by conventional methods. The process also applies to plant-based foods, and can tell, for example, the difference between coffee grown in Brazil from that grown in Costa Rica.

Green says that John Spink, director of the Packaging for Food and Product Protection Initiative at Michigan State University, estimates the cost of fraud to the global food industry at $49 billion. The main issues are, in no particular order: food adulteration for profit, tax and tariff avoidance, brand fraud and competitive fraud.

Radio frequency tagging and barcoding provide a traceability system intended to enable tracking of virtually any food through the production and retail chain, Green says. But the chain of custody has weak points, especially whenever the tag or code is removed from one entity, such as the animal, and a new one added to the next such as the side of beef, and again at the next stage, the retail product.

In contrast, the Picarro technology uses a type of molecular tracking they call "Nature's Barcode." The process is based on the principle that the carbon-based molecules in water, air and soil are composed of stable isotopes. When plants process carbon dioxide and water through photosynthesis, green explains, they do so with specific signatures of these isotopes dependent on the type of plant and where it was grown. "When animals eat plants, the signature is passed along - so we can differentiate meat from cows that have eaten grass or corn or have been finished on corn."

Green adds that the molecular data can be used in conjunction with RFID and barcodes so that piece of meat could travel with the isotope value encoded in the existing tag data file. If there was any doubt that the meat had been compromised in any way, the test could be run and the data checked against the known value.

In the Corn-o-phobia article, we speculated that testing of this nature probably would add too much cost to a cut of meat to be practical. But Green says modern technology makes the analysis increasingly cost-effective. In the past, he says, stable-isotope analysis required large, complex instruments costing as much as a half million dollars and requiring extensive training to operate. Picarro, he says, has developed systems that are affordable, compact enough for installation in a small lab and just as powerful as the larger systems.

The operation, he says, is simple. Cut a small piece of meat, put it into an autosampler chamber. The meat is dropped into a 1000 C oven where combustion releases the carbon dioxide and water carrying the same isotopic signatures that were locked into the plants the animal ate. "We read the signature optically using a laser technique and report the isotopic signature of the meat." The cost, he says, is approximately 50 cents per sample and each sample takes only 10 minutes.

"Food traceability by molecular tracking is a major initiative that is revolutionizing the way in which we track food movement through the complex web of producers, processors shippers and consumers, Green says. "It adds value to every step of the chain, creating a level of security not achievable by mechanical means alone."

So the day is here when you might see a beef label specifying where the animal was raised and what it ate over the course of its life, verified by molecular analysis.

Make mine a Kansas City Strip please, from a steer born on grass, raised on forage and supplements to about 700 pounds, then fed for about 200 days on a high-concentrate diet containing hay, corn and up to 30 percent distillers" grains. Medium rare. Thank you.

View Power Point slides illustrating the "Nature's Barcode" process

Visit the Picarro Inc. Web site for more information.