Tracing the Future of Food Safety

Red, Yellow, Green” by airfund is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Last week, I made the requisite trip to the local grocery store to procure the ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast, including onions, celery, potatoes, butter, eggs, lettuce, cranberries, apples, and of course, a turkey. I had many things on my mind, but not among them were questions about whether the food I was buying was safe to eat, or whether the potatoes, apples, and celery were indeed organic as labeled— I generally take these things for granted. However, I should know better.

We have enormously complex systems that grow, process, and transport our food, and while (thankfully) most of the time everything works well, problems can and do occur, and sometimes bad actors try to take advantage. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the U.S.

One important capability of our food system is traceability. Traceability systems offer the capability to track something — many of us use such systems when sending or receiving packages via FedEx, UPS, or the USPS. They can tell us where something originated, and sometimes the route it has taken to arrive. With food, barcodes that can be associated with this information are sometimes printed on packaging or even applied to the products themselves with stickers. They might tell you where a product came from, whether it was genetically modified, or whether pesticides were applied to it.

Unfortunately, a problem with tracking on packages or stickers is that if a product is removed from its packaging, or if a sticker is removed, the tracing information is lost. (You may recall a story from a few weeks ago where a Florida woman attempted to scam a local Walmart by switching barcodes on products.) A superior, but historically difficult or impossible, approach would be to apply an invisible tracer directly to the products, one that would be very difficult to tamper with — and this is what SafeTraces technology enables.

SafeTraces’ tracers are not only invisible, but also odorless, tasteless and edible. They can be applied directly to products and the information can be read with off-the-shelf equipment — in minutes — as the items move through the supply chain. Product packaging may be changed, but the tracers remain. The system works for produce, and also for more challenging items such as proteins, liquids, and dry foods. The technology was originally developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and has been commercialized by SafeTraces CEO Anthony Zografos and team.

We are delighted to be leading SafeTraces’ Series A. We have keen interest in supply chain technologies that improve food safety. And in addition to the tracing capabilities, SafeTraces technology also has applications to improve sanitation practices, key for preventing contamination and outbreaks. Calls for advancements in food safety systems are coming from consumers and businesses alike, and legislation like the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) includes new requirements focused on preventive controls. We believe SafeTraces will play an important role in this evolution, and help us all continue to shop with confidence.