Genetic Testing for Your Hot Dog

How one company is using genomic analysis to combat food fraud

Tood Korol / Reuters

Over the past few years, food has generated headlines and turned stomachs the world over. In 2013, European governments launched a massive investigation after food-safety agencies discovered that an alarming number of products advertised as beef were actually horsemeat. In China last year, Walmart recalled its “Five Spice” donkey-meat snacks after they were found to be adulterated with fox meat. In the U.S., Americans spend around $5.57 billion a year on sausages—but up to 14 percent of the time, the type of meat may not match what’s advertised on the package.

That last statistic comes from Clear Labs, a startup that aims to quite literally see how the sausage gets made. The company, which uses DNA sequencing to analyze the contents of food, claims its molecular database of around 10,000 items is the largest in the world—a tool it plans to use to fight food fraud, which currently affects an estimated 10 percent of the world’s commercial food supply. Earlier this month, it launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new consumer initiative Clear Food, a project to analyze and publish a report on a particular food category each month (backers will get to vote on the category they’d like Clear Labs to tackle next). Each product included in the report will receive a score based on how closely the label matches the content.

Patty Lovera, the assistant director of the food-safety advocacy organization Food and Water Watch, said as that food-supply chains have grown increasingly complex, they’ve created more opportunities for food fraud to occur. Getting a food product onto grocery-store shelves now involves  more middlemen across a higher number of countries. At the same time, the shape of supply chains has also changed through consolidation, with more power concentrated at the beginning.

“There are so many chances for something to go wrong, whether it’s an innocent mistake or someone chooses to be fraudulent,” Lovera said. “At the end of the line, the customer might not get what they paid for. There is not enough accuracy testing going on, and people have a right to know that the food labels they look at are accurate.” Inaccuracies can be dangerous to people with allergies, and devastating to someone with ethical and religious concerns (someone who refrains from eating pork, for example, has a right to expect that their pork-free products live up to the claim; same with vegetarians and meat-free items).

According to Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, the FDA primarily focuses its efforts on keeping food uncontaminated, rather than the accuracy of labeling.

“The FDA does not have unlimited resources, but to be honest, I’d rather the FDA do more work on food safety than making sure that red snapper doesn’t happen to be tilapia,” he said. “I think private industry will play a very, very important role in this issue.”

So does Clear Labs. The company was founded in 2013 by Sasan Amini and Ghorashi in 2013, both of whom left their jobs at genomics companies to apply DNA-testing technologies to the food industry.  The process is similar to the genomic analysis used in clinical trials to personalize cancer treatments—when a hot-dog package proclaims the contents to be “all beef,” Clear Labs’ analysis can compare the molecular makeup of that hot dog against the molecular signature of beef, stored in the database, to see if it’s true. The company says it can also determine whether the label’s nutritional claims are valid.

“Once we started to test the U.S. food supply in a rigorous fashion, we started to see a 10-15 percent discrepancy rate between product claims and actual molecular content of the food,” Ghorashi said.

In the Clear Foods initiative’s report on hot dogs and sausages, the company analyzed 345 samples across 75 brands and 10 retailers, and found that 14.4 percent of the products tested were “problematic in some way.”

Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.

“We expected to find some deviations because it is a complex supply chain,” Ghorashi said, “but this is also about intentional adulteration for economic gain, which is basically fraud.”

Weidmann said that while molecular sequencing of food can inject more transparency into the food system, there are also significant challenges to consider. For example, DNA testing often yields false positives. And as tests have become more sensitive, cross-contamination poses a great risk to the results.

“If a lab is sequencing bacteria and they get a few donkey sequences in the bacteria, that does not mean there is donkey DNA in the bacteria,” he said. “It could mean that someone sequenced a donkey genome the day before on the same equipment and the DNA is floating around. The devil is in the details.” Trace elements of meat in a vegetarian hot dog could also come from the turkey sandwich that the processor ate for lunch, rather than actual meat in the product.

However, according to Amini, Clear Labs has also established multiple layers of verification, meaning fewer false positives and cleaner data.

Weidmann also added that molecular sequencing can’t catch all contamination issues. For example, Clear Labs’ genomic testing could not have detected the industrial compound melamine in the milk powder that sickened 300,000 babies in China in 2008, killing six.

“You can put things into products that don’t have DNA, like chemical compounds,” he said. “You won’t find that with genomic testing, and this highlights one of the weaknesses of the approach. You can overcome it by doing a combination of testing.”

Furthermore, genomic testing can’t always identify more subtle types of fraud, such as the difference between organic and non-organic.

“How will you know if you buy organic apples that 10 percent of those apples are not from a certified organic farm?” Weidmann said. “Unless it’s highly sophisticated, DNA testing cannot differentiate between organic and non-organic if the apples are grown in same area. A lot of things won’t be picked up, and those are the things that people are eagerly concerned about.”

Amini said that in addition to Clear Labs’ genomic testing, the company is working on a way to assess the validity of organic claims through analyses like pesticide detection. It also conducts non-DNA tests for things like hormones, antibiotics, and other substances that may pose a concern to consumers.

“The food industry operates on an upstream waterfall effect,” Ghorashi said. “If consumers demand something, retailers typically respond, and consumers are ready for better food. We hope our efforts will help increase standards of quality across the board.” Until then, maybe walk down the hot-dog aisle with caution.