DNA Sequencing Reveals Food’s Secrets—but Consumers May Not Learn What’s Uncovered

Clear Labs’ new analysis service can test the complete makeup of a product, including unintended ingredients and pathogens, with one test.

A sample of a noodle product with meat ready to be DNA-tested. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/Getty Images)

Sep 17, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeed, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

Let’s say you’re a producer of all-beef hot dogs. You want to make sure of quite a few things in your product: The hot dogs need to be made of all beef, rather than pork or squirrel or greater bamboo lemur; they need to conform to the nutrition facts the government makes you put on the packaging; they need to be free from salmonella or E. coli or anything else nasty; they need to not contain peanuts or anything else that might cause an allergic reaction; and maybe you’d like to know, though legally you don’t have to know, whether there’s anything genetically modified in there.

Currently to do that you’d need a barrage of tests, most of which are expensive and most of which take quite a long time. Salmonella, for example, can take up to a week to reproduce in a lab. For some of that stuff, like making sure there’s no squirrel in your all-beef hot dog, traditional testing is no help at all; you’d need to send someone into your supply chain. A start-up called Clear Labs is trying to fix that problem by testing everything at once.

Clear Labs is one of a crop of biotech companies trying to leverage DNA sequencing into something profitable. DNA sequencing has been around for a few decades, but it’s only in the last 10 years or so that so-called next-generation DNA sequencing has been in vogue. The technology basically extracts DNA from a sample and analyzes it very closely, looking for any weird patterns in the analysis. Those weird patterns are cross-checked with a database, kind of like looking up a bar code in a point-of-sale machine. If the weird patterns—they’re called “markers”—match up with something in the database, the scientist knows that product, whether it’s a fungus, a bacteria, or a greater bamboo lemur, is present in the sample.

Using DNA sequencing in the food industry is fairly new, though not new enough that it’s totally foreign. The government has already begun figuring out ways to use the tech to identify specific varieties of fish, useful given that American sushi is legendarily badly labeled. Clear Labs is going one step further, offering a database that includes (or hopes to include) pretty much everything. On Sept. 15, it officially launched its database, making DNA sequencing of food available to (hopeful) subscribers.

“What we’re really trying to do as a company is move the industry from a reactive model of testing to a proactive model, where they can get out in front of all of these issues with food early on,” said Sasan Amini, cofounder and CEO of Clear Labs. His company’s offerings are twofold: a huge database of hundreds of thousands of DNA markers, to which companies ranging from retailers to manufacturers can buy a subscription, as well as the ability to test any new products that said companies might want to learn more about.

This is expensive; at the cheapest, a smaller company’s subscription will cost “in the low six figures,” said Mahni Ghorashi, the other cofounder I spoke to, who serves as the company’s chief marketing officer. Testing is not cheap; there will be tiers, so companies that need fewer items tested pay less than companies that need more items tested. But on the high end, for a Walmart-level company, it could cost up to $10 million.

But what these companies get for that steep entry price is pretty fascinating. That manufacturer or retailer of all-beef hot dogs can see whether there’s pork in there, whether there’s salmonella, whether there are forbidden preservatives, and potentially even where the beef (or pork) comes from—right back to the farm that raised the animal. Amini said the test will take about two weeks and require somewhere between 100 and 1,000 samples (each very small), but in that time the client will see every little thing that’s going on in that hot dog. Amini and Ghorashi both use words like “quality” and “authenticity” when describing what clients would want to see. What this system really does, however, is figure out the truth: It won’t tell you whether the beef tastes good; it’ll tell you whether a product actually contains what it says it does.

Where a product like Clear Labs gets decidedly unclear is in its legal status. There’s a reason why the government has begun figuring out how to use DNA sequencing in food monitoring—it has the potential to be a phenomenally useful tool, likely able to save lives that would otherwise be lost to poisoning and allergens. Every year, roughly 3,000 people die of food-borne illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the government’s responsibility is to the consumer, to the weekend grill master who’s eating those all-beef hot dogs. Clear Labs’ responsibility is to its clients, which will be, owing to the expense involved, fantastically rich and thus untrustworthy corporations.

I posed a question to Amini and Ghorashi: Say a giant retailer like Walmart (a company that, for the record, has no announced affiliation whatsoever with Clear Labs) tests those all-beef hot dogs. Clear Labs finds that there’s pork inside, a huge problem for those with religious dietary restrictions like kosher and halal, but also a problem for any consumer who wants a product’s label to accurately depict what’s inside. Clear Labs tells Walmart, “Hey, your all-beef hot dogs have pork in them.”

What happens if Walmart says, “Oh, thanks,” and does nothing?

This isn’t exactly a public safety issue, assuming the falsely labeled hot dogs don’t also have other pathogens in them. But Clear Labs doesn’t have to report it to the FDA or USDA. Futhermore, it won’t. “We’re not a policing or consumer-watch-group-type organization,” Ghorashi said. Regardless of what Clear Labs finds, it’s not going to the public and it’s not going to the authorities. It’s going to Walmart.

“What we see in practice is, these brands have a lot on the line in terms of the integrity of the product that they sell,” Ghorashi said in response. “In case of an anomaly, we’ve seen almost instantaneous action to address the issue because so much is on the line.” In other words, they trust that, due to the pressure of a potential scandal, the client—again, a huge corporation—will do the right thing and pull the product.

I asked if they’d consider, say, giving a subscription to a consumer watchdog group, so at least the public would have some quasi-representative able to look at this data. Perhaps a watchdog group could be given a discounted subscription to the database! “Likely, no,” said Ghorashi. That’s not what Clear Labs is about. “Our product is really designed to flag these alerts and send them back to industry for action,” he said.

Clear Labs is one of the bigger entries in a field that has some pretty amazing consumer safety and awareness potential. As consumers want to know more and more about what’s actually in our food, DNA sequencing is about as promising a tool for doing that as there is. But should that tool really be restricted only to the entities that produce and sell the food, rather than to the consumers who actually, well, consume it?