When a consumer used to ask, “Where does meat come from?” the answer was simple – hamburgers come from cows, pork chops from pigs and chicken fingers come from chickens. But, today’s consumers want to know more. They want to know if the Angus beef they are paying top dollar for at the meat counter truly is from Angus cattle and if the imported Irish pork really comes from Ireland. Thanks to the use of DNA traceability technology, packers, processors, retailers and restaurateurs can verify the origin of the meat they are selling – and consumers can get the answers they’re looking for, and have some peace of mind as well.

“DNA is nature’s bar code,” says Dr. Ronan Loftus, CEO and co-founder of Lawrence, Kan.-based IdentiGEN North America. “Using DNA is a very effective way to perform traceability.”

IdentiGEN’s technology involves analyzing individual DNA samples from each animal – “similar to the use of DNA for forensic identification of humans,” Loftus says. The process starts at the farm level and is linked to samples taken at the processing plant and ultimately at the retail level. The sample device resembles a pencil with a bar-coded cap. The bar code is read and linked with the carcass ID at the plant level and a sharp edge of the instrument is scraped across the carcass. The instrument is then placed back in its container with a bar-coded cap and shipped overnight to IdentiGEN’s laboratory in Lawrence where samples are profiled and cataloged within 24 to 48 hours of arriving.

The technology can link a package of steak in a supermarket meatcase directly to the feedlot where the animal was raised, and this link is scientifically verifiable.

European markets have been using the technology for some time since traceability has been a hot-button issue that European markets have required for decades. The technology, now more plentifully used in the US, has not changed; it has just been configured so it could be adopted to different markets, Loftus says.

“The markets here [in the US] as compared to Ireland and Great Britain are gargantuan,” Loftus says. Some adjustments to the processes and procedures of implementing a DNA traceback system have had to be made including incorporating robotics into the process and adding extra training for personnel responsible for obtaining samples in larger, faster-paced operations.

“We’ve tried hard to develop the technology so it can be easily overlayed within existing operations,” Loftus added. There is a minimal, if any, capital cost for individual operations adding a DNA traceback system – unless robotics are needed, he says. “Our goal was to develop a system that would assure there would be no substantial impact on production lines.”

Most of the work is done by IdentiGEN in its Lawrence, Kan., laboratory. All samples are analyzed there – no third-party labs are used because of technology’s intricate nature.

Exporting advantages

This technology can be very helpful to processors and packers interested in exporting their product. Many of the Asian export markets, in particular, are demanding traceability information before approving exports. A premium price will be paid in those export markets so many processors are seeing the added value of incorporating a DNA traceability program.

Aurora, Ill.-based Aurora Packing Co. started its partnership with IdentiGEN in July 2011 to provide DNA-traceability technology for its US and export customers. Aurora Angus Beef with DNA TraceBack is being marketed to high-end restaurants and retail stores. Angus origins are verified using the animal’s unique DNA barcode, which is gathered from samples taken at various stages of production.

“Aurora is committed to delivering complete transparency to our customers,” says Lowell Zoet, vice president and general manager of Aurora Packing Co. “We like DNA-based traceability because it offers foolproof assurance to consumers that Aurora Angus has been produced according to the highest standards as set forth in our program.”

The 70-year-old premium packer and producer of Aurora Angus Beef was one of the first US beef companies to start exporting DNA-traceable beef to South Korea.

There is a growing demand in South Korea for US beef, however, South Korea also puts strong importance on traceable product. A Sept. 26, 2011, study by the US Meat Export Federation reported that South Korea has adopted mandatory traceability programs for its domestic beef, as well as its imports. The report states, “As more countries adopt animal and meat tracking systems, those early adopters of livestock and meat traceability systems have the opportunity to gain significant market advantages through increased consumer confidence.”

“Aurora Angus Beef meets Korea’s high standards for quality and consistency, but we needed DNA traceability to complete the picture,” Zoet says.”

Aurora’s use of DNA traceability was approved as a USDA Process Verified Program (PVP) after an extensive review and on-site audit of the company’s operations. PVP for pork provides companies with a verification service for specific processes within their organization. The program ensures that processes at the meat processing facilities meet quality standards that are verified by USDA and continually verified by independent third-party audits. Upon acceptance by USDA, companies are allowed to market their products as “USDA Process Verified.” IdentiGEN’s DNA TraceBack system received PVP approval in November 2007.

Consumer confidence

Sturgeon Valley Pork, Alberta, Canada, started using DNA traceability technology a year-and-a-half ago as a third-party verification system. The DNA technology allowed the company to prove to its customers that their products were “100 percent Alberta pork.”

“Our customers want to know exactly what they’re buying and this allows us to prove it,” says Dan Majeau, general manager at Sturgeon Valley Pork.

Each package of Sturgeon Valley Pork that’s sold at Freson Bros. supermarkets in Canada carries a label that reads, “Guaranteed Premium Alberta Pork.” The label also features a DNA TraceBack logo.

“We’re not sure our customers truly understand what DNA traceback means, but we know they want to know where they’re food comes from and the logo tells them that we can trace our product back to its origin,” Majeau says.

Loftus added, “Consumers everywhere are starting to want to know more and more about where and how their food was produced, and this technology is perfect for bringing that comfort level to consumers. However, we need to figure out the best way to communicate with the consumers – we need to know what they want to know, and what they can understand about the technology.”

In the event of a food-safety issue, DNA TraceBack systems allow companies to narrow the scope of a recall back to the source, quickly and accurately. However, DNA TraceBack is not designed for residue analysis, E. coli detection or detecting any other causative agent: It simply traces products from point A to Point B. “We can help determine quality, but we don’t determine whether E. coli is in a batch or not,” Loftus says.

Future uses

The technology is starting to be used with ground meat, which is far more challenging since ground product is often a mix of different cuts of meat oftentimes from different animals.

Richmond, Va.-based Performance Food Group (PFG) is the first to use DNA-based traceability technology to trace ground beef to its Black Angus origins. The foodservice distributor has partnered with IdentiGEN, to develop the first commercial solution to trace ground meat back to its origins using DNA technology.

Thousands of US restaurants from coast to coast including Blackstone Bar and Grill (Yorkville, Ill.), Oakes Farms Market (Naples, Fla.) and DeRango The Pizza King (Kenosha, Wis.) will serve Braveheart Black Angus Burgers from PFG that are traceable using this forensic-style technology.

IdentiGEN’s DNA TraceBack system captures the unique DNA of the Black Angus cattle as they move through the production chain. Samples can be taken during any stage of the production process. Analytical and statistical techniques implemented at the company’s laboratories in Lawrence make it possible for individual beef patties to be traced back to their origins, which is unachievable using conventional tracking systems, Loftus says.

PFG’s adoption of the DNA traceback technology for its Braveheart Black Angus Burgers follows the company’s adoption of the technology for its steaks, roasts and other beef cuts in May 2011. The primary reason PFG partnered with IdentiGEN on this traceback system was to ensure its customers that its premium-priced beef truly does come from Angus cattle. Now the company sees the value in being able to trace the origins of its ground products too.

“This is an exciting development in meat traceability systems because it enables us for the first time to trace a batch of ground beef back to its origins,” says Steve Sands, PFG’s vice president of protein. “Our Braveheart customers demand the highest quality Angus beef that has been raised in the Midwest. DNA TraceBack is a critical tool to verify that Braveheart Black Angus ground beef is what they’re getting.

“This technology also has a lot of potential to help us improve our product quality – we are still trying to figure out how to use it to build improvement into our processes,” he says. “The next step is to use this technology to help us raise better quality Angus cattle using DNA markers as the guide.”