“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.