Between 2009 and 2018, there were 40 serious E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens in the US. Because there were too many farms involved in the supply chain, most of the time, health authorities weren’t able to identify the specific type or brand that had caused the problem, so they simply told the public to throw away any products that might have posed a risk — sending truckloads of food to landfills.
A startup, called Aanika Biosciences, is working on a novel technology that could make tracking the source of potential outbreaks much easier. The process involves spraying invisible, edible microbial tags on leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, which has been the primary suspect in most of the outbreaks.
Such tags make the tracking process way more simple than going through each link of the supply chain and trying to figure out where the lettuce came from after it’s been through a number of processing centers that mix greens from multiple farms together. Currently, it’s nearly impossible to tell the source of greens in a particular bag of salad mix at a store.
“You’ve got a ton of different farms all flowing to a processing plant where it’s washed and packaged, and then that goes to multiple distributors and then thousands of end products and customers,” says Vishaal Bhuyan, co-founder and CEO of Aanika Biosciences. “When you have an outbreak, you can take one step quickly, because you have a serial number on the bag. But once you try to figure out what farms are in that bag, it becomes extremely difficult.”
The new technology enables public authorities to track the produce in much more detail in case of an outbreak. The tech does that using a common microbe that’s typically found in soil. To prevent it from growing, the company inactivates the microbe and then edits its genome to create a unique signature that can be assigned to a farm — in a similar manner that a supermarket product has its unique barcode.
The microbial tags can easily be added to a head of lettuce when it’s first washed at a processing center, so the tags end up on every leaf. This means that if it’s later mixed in a bag with greens from another farm, each can be uniquely tracked via a proprietary test.
Aanika is currently working to get its technology approved, which could happen by the end of the year. If everything goes according to the plan, the tech could both help limit the number of people getting sick and prevent huge amounts of food waste.
Image source: Aanika Biosciences