DNA-traceable meat technology marketed to retailers

Monday, May 12, 2008

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- An Ireland-based company that uses DNA technology to test and track meat to the original animal and prove that it's what the label promises is now targeting U.S. retailers.

IdentiGEN Ltd., which has opened U.S. operations in Lawrence, Kan., wants retailers here to use its DNA TraceBack technology on hamburger, steak, pork and other meats that end up in stores. The company says the technology can determine not only where the meat came from, but whether it's organic or Angus or whatever the label says.

IdentiGEN, which takes DNA samples at slaughterhouses and again in stores, has been using its technology since 2000 in Europe, where company officials say they've had a major influence on improving customer trust since the outbreaks of mad cow disease. Now, it has the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"If you see DNA TraceBack label, believe it," said IdentiGEN chief executive officer Don Marvin. "It's true. It's DNA."

Marvin said it's the first program successfully deployed for real-time DNA traceability of the entire supply chain. Bovigen LLC, a Louisiana-based company recently purchased by Pfizer Animal Health, also has Agriculture Department approval for its DNA collecting process, but the company plans to use it only to help livestock producers identify beef cattle for specific traits for breeding purposes, said spokesman Rick Goulart.

IdentiGEN has just entered the North American market, so it will have to convince some within the industry that the technology is needed. Dave Schafer, executive director of the Kansas Meat Processors Association, said he remains skeptical, because there is no proof of a lack of safety in the industry, which might not want to add even more costs to already high food prices.

"There is no evidence there is a serious safety problem or even a very minimal problem to justify the cost," Schafer said.

But Marvin said IdentiGEN's technology could have helped reduce how much meat had to be recalled when humane violations were discovered at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif. Undercover video showed plant employees abusing sick or weakened cows, leading to the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

U.S. retailers

IdentiGEN already counts British grocer Tesco and Ireland-based Superquinn and Dunnes Stores as customers and plans to announce at least three major U.S. companies in the next few months. Both Tesco and Superquinn launched marketing campaigns after implementing the DNA TraceBack, but the U.S retailers haven't publicly announced their use of the product.

IdentiGEN markets its product to retailers, putting pressure on suppliers to use the technology at slaughterhouses. Workers there are trained to collect a sample from every bovine or swine animal, sending it to the Lawrence office where DNA profiles can be created in less than 48 hours.

Then employees at retailers take another sample, using a small plastic tool to quickly swipe muscle cuts or ground meat. Those samples are again sent to Lawrence to compare to DNA profiles, determining the specific animal and origin. Information kept by farmers or others in the supply chain can also be added to give IdentiGEN a full history.

Other producers, including Brian Beckman of Grinnell Locker Plant in Grinnell, Kan., said they wondered how accurate the technology could be, noting some slaughterhouses process hundreds of animals at once.

Consumer safety

But Marvin said the company, founded by a group of geneticists from Ireland's Trinity College in 1996, has been effective.

For example, Marvin said one European retailer using IdentiGEN discovered that almost 30 percent of the meat from one supplier was out of specification, causing the company to eventually drop the supplier.

Marvin said the process adds just pennies to the final price of meats such as sirloin or bacon, with both suppliers and retailers absorbing some of the cost.

Some industry officials believe the technology adds value that customers would be willing to pay for.

"This is a way to ensure consumers are actually buying products they desire to buy," Polansky said.

Kansas State University professor Curtis Kastner said the DNA tracking is an enhancement to ear tags on cattle now used by many farmers. Kastner, a professor of animal sciences and director of the school's Food Science Institute, said besides the safety and consumer confidence advantages, the meat could also be marketed to other countries.

"Here's a pretty powerful tool to help the market here in Kansas and in this region of states to say 'here's a product that is not just perceived as safe and secure, it actually is,'" Kastner said.

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