Lab Canada

Food safety recalls, traceability being improved with new genome research

Calgary, AB – New research aims to improve food safety recalls and traceability systems, while also offering scientists a better method for tracking animals.

The research project focuses on using DNA to improve food safety and traceability systems around ground beef. Researchers extracted samples from ground beef batches, and then pulled DNA from individual muscle fibres found within the samples. Using a statistical method, researchers were then able to infer how many individual cattle made up each batch.

“The idea is that if there is a problem, that we could use this technology to narrow down the window where the contamination has occurred,” says Dr Graham Plastow, who is CEO of Livestock Gentec and part of the research team. Packers could determine which batches were contaminated using DNA testing, leading to more targeted product recalls.

The research could also eventually add value to traceability systems for consumers and livestock producers.

Researchers who need to estimate animal populations in complex situations also have a new method for doing so. Traditional methods greatly underestimated population numbers in settings where there was greater variation, such as those found in packing plants.  The Alberta researchers were able to account for this variation in their DNA tracking method, leading to more accurate estimates.

“Basically what this research shows is that there is a whole new set of tools available now to the research community that has application to all kinds of industry, including the livestock industry. This type of result would not have been possible even a couple of years ago because the technology was not advanced enough,” says Gijs van Rooijen, chief scientific officer for Genome Alberta, which partially funded the project.

Dr Plastow adds the project has just completed its first of three years, so more results are forthcoming. The next steps include work on technical aspects and modeling how contamination spreads through a packing plant.

“Having really demonstrated the technical capability, and put together the statistical tool to do the calculations, we can now look at the practicality of what’s possible,” he says.