During a 2011 listeria outbreak involving cantaloupe, 33 people died and 137 were sickened.
While Anthony Zografos was not one of them, the story caught his eye. And the thing that concerned him the most was the weeks it took to pinpoint the source of contamination. Many consumers may have had those melons in their refrigerators the whole time, ticking time bombs to make the consumers who purchased them deathly ill.
"In this day and age, if I can look at my shirt and can tell right away where it's from, you should be able to do this for food, right?" Zografos told Food Dive. "...I found out that no, that's not the case at all. So that's the problem I set out to solve. How can you identify the origin of food pretty much instantly?"
Zografos, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and previously worked as chief operating officer of tech company Compact Particle Acceleration Corporation, wanted to solve this problem. There are two important reasons to make this information available, he said: food safety and guaranteeing authenticity.
Most traceability applications on the market do a good job of keeping track of food packaging. Zografos wanted to create something unique. He founded SafeTraces, which creates DNA-level tracking that is applied directly to food products.
"The product information stays with the product itself, whether it's apples, or beans, or grains, or oils, or a caviar," Zografos said. "You name it ... we've done it. So basically, you can pick a grain out of a bag, or you can pick an apple out of a case or you can pick … a single row out of the tin of caviar and you can identify where it was produced, when it was produced."
While SafeTraces has been around for a few years, it's recently announced high level partnerships. Last week, the tracking company announced a deal with safety science giant UL to enhance palm oil traceability. This partnership gives businesses dealing with palm oil — a common food ingredient that has a reputation for being farmed using substandard sustainability and human rights practices — a potentially easy solution to guarantee the ingredient's source.
Last month, SafeTraces announced a partnership with JBT FoodTech, a leading producer of food processing and packaging equipment. This partnership has not yet been fully defined, SafeTraces Vice President of Business Development Ulrike Hodges told Food Dive, but the companies are looking for a way to pursue food processing while integrating SafeTraces technology.
How it works
While other methods to trace food focus on barcodes on food packaging, SafeTraces uses something much smaller: DNA.
Zografos said the company extracts food-safe DNA markers from seaweed. Those markers are converted into something read like a barcode and applied to the surface of the food. It's received generally recognized as safe status from the FDA and is completely imperceptible, he said.
"Obviously if you use it on caviar, … you can't really afford to affect the taste," Zografos said. "People pay thousands of dollars for an ounce ... and they will not be willing to tolerate any changes."
"People are looking to tell this story and, you know, a way to do that is by talking about the origin of the grain and its journey, and ... our solution helps do that."
Founder and CEO, SafeTraces
In fact, Zografos said, there's nothing unusual about DNA, which is completely natural and a part of every food item, he said — unlike chemical additives. The solution also doesn't impact shelf life, product appearance or chemistry. He said it's introduced to food in concentrations of parts-per-billion.
SafeTraces is used by many different food makers, but mostly fresh produce companies. There's vast demand for this kind of traceability technology — and vast opportunity, he said.
The UL partnership to trace palm oil is one of these opportunities. In the press release announcing it, Zografos talked about the deep-seated problems with palm oil.
"The human, environmental and financial toll of this problem is enormous," he said. "The first-mile, from plantation to mill, is where the risk of deforestation and labor exploitation is greatest and where traceability is weakest. SafeTraces is thrilled to partner with a global leader like UL to securely trace palm oil back to individual plantations in a way that is operationally and financially attractive for our customers."
UL, which provides third-party audits and inspections, said in the press release it will use the partnership "to tackle the palm oil sourcing problem on the ground, delivering unprecedented control of and insight into a critically important food supply chain."
Another project in development would make it easier to trace grains. Zografos told Food Dive many of the world's consumers want to know exactly where their bread comes from and whether the wheat it is made from is local and fresh.
"People are looking to tell this story and, you know, a way to do that is by talking about the origin of the grain and its journey, and ... our solution helps do that," he said.
Authenticity is an important reason to trace food. Adulteration has been a problem with some items, with less expensive versions of items like caviar, oil, honey and fish being mislabeled as their pricier counterparts. With a solution like SafeTraces, the end consumer can be sure an item is what he believes it to be. After all, Zografos said, even if a producer uses blockchain to meticulously track a box of Washington apples, there's no guarantee that someone along the line didn't switch some out for less expensive varieties.
Finding that one critical point
Food safety is another application of SafeTraces technology. Like the listeria outbreak that first caught Zografos' attention, consumers need to know quickly if they have an item that is contaminated.
Blockchain, which Zografos said he considers a tool in the traceability toolbox, is useful. But in order to make it work, it requires buy-in from every link in the supply chain.
With the current infrastructure around blockchain, a product can be traced by where it has gone in the supply chain. And while that’s important to manufacturers, retailers and those in logistics, it is much less important to consumers. They want to know a few basic things: Is this product safe? Is it authentic? If the answer to either of those questions is no, they want to know where the issue occurred.
"There is usually a single point — a single transformation, if you like — where the product either gains value or acquires risk. From that point on, nothing really happens. It's in a box and it goes from one place to another, and it can go to 20 places before it gets to you."
Founder and CEO, SafeTraces
"The majority of the value or of the risk is introduced at a single point," Zografos said. "It could be the farm, it could be the packing house, it could be the processor. But there is usually a single point — a single transformation, if you like — where the product either gains value or acquires risk. From that point on, nothing really happens. It's in a box and it goes from one place to another, and it can go to 20 places before it gets to you."
With SafeTraces, it’s easier to go back to that one place. If items are checked consistently as they travel through the supply chain, it's quite easy to find, Zografos said.
As SafeTraces improves its technology and continues to forge partnerships, there is great potential. Zografos said the company is likely to work with agricultural commodities, but opportunities may fuel greater expansion — maybe even into other fields like healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
"The possibilities are quite significant," he said.