Three months after piloting a DNA-based tracing program for fresh beef sold in its stores in Ireland, officials at Tesco said they view the system chiefly as a tool to ensure and verify the quality and reliability of the company's private-label product.
The retailer, which operates about 100 of its 2,500 stores worldwide in Ireland, is using DNA TraceBack — a system provided by IdentiGEN — to develop a database showing the exact source of all fresh beef products sold under its private label.
Liam Forsyth, meat buyer for Tesco's Ireland division, said using DNA analysis is an “accurate, reliable and cost-effective” method of assuring that products consistently live up to their billing with regard to origin and quality.
“With IdentiGEN's DNA TraceBack system we can identify and trace the origin of beef from all of our suppliers to our customers using a system that is based on innovative science,” he said.
IdentiGEN, based in Dublin, markets a service that involves collecting DNA samples from animals prior to slaughter and from meat products sold downstream by retailers. To verify the source of meat products, samples taken either at the packing plant or at the retailer's warehouse or, conceivably, at the store can be analyzed at IdentiGEN's labs and traced directly to the source animal or animals in the database.
Three Irish meatpackers that supply Tesco with conventional and organic beef sold under its private label are participating in the program. Prior to implementing the program, Tesco said the companies — KEPAK, Dawn Meats and Donegal Meats — were evaluated for their ability to meet sampling and other conformance standards.
To communicate the program's value to customers, packages bearing beef products supplied by these packers sport IdentiGEN's DNA TraceBack logo. Tesco also promotes the program through in-store point-of-sale materials and shelf-talker tickets that feature the logo. Recipe and product information literature detail how DNA traceability works.
Tesco said rolling out the program in its Ireland supermarkets made sense because that division has made a point of sourcing only Irish beef for its store label. The chain recognized the potential value of having a way to assure customers, and company officials as well, that the beef is of Irish origin.
“Based on our customer research on fresh meat purchases and as part of our commitment to offer only top-quality fresh Irish meat to Tesco Ireland customers, it was a logical step to demonstrate this completely,” according to a press release issued by Tesco. “This provides traceability back to an individual animal, where previously we had batch traceability. The feedback we're getting is that customers welcome the extra assurance of traceability and are more conscious that Tesco Ireland only sells Irish beef.”
Tesco is not saying whether the program will be rolled out to stores in other divisions, including those it intends to open for the first time in the United States later this year.
With plans to market the tracking program more aggressively, especially in the States, IdentiGEN sees the Tesco relationship as an important springboard to adoption by major supermarket chains. IdentiGEN's DNA system has been used by other supermarket chains including Super-quinn, a small Irish specialty store group, and U.K.-based Sainsbury but on a significantly smaller scale.
“Our selection by a major global retailer such as Tesco supports the value of our DNA TraceBack brand and the quality of the services we provide,” said Donald Marvin, president and chief executive officer of IdentiGEN North America, a subsidiary opened late last year in Lawrence, Kan., to lay the groundwork for a North American marketing effort.
“We believe this level of recognition will support our growth and expansion in North America and we already see DNA TraceBack attracting the attention of key retailers and meat suppliers in the U.S.,” he said.
Though it has no specific contracts yet with any potential North American customers, the company is working on trials with some U.S. supermarket chains and meat suppliers, said Ronan Loftus, global commercial director for IdentiGEN and IdentiGEN North America.
“With the discovery of BSE [mad cow disease] in the North American beef herd, attention has been focused more on the issue of food safety and tracing capabilities,” Loftus said. “There's a lot of discussion taking place about live animal ID systems. So we're having a lot of conversations with key players in the market here and we opened our North American division with a view to exploring opportunities to expand this technology with key stakeholders.”
In fact, IdentiGEN and other companies that market comparable systems are using food safety, and the related issues of disease, product contamination and recalls, as key selling points for tracking programs.
DNA tracing has a lot of potential in light of its ability to quickly and definitively determine the origin of meat products without turning to imperfect systems like radio frequency identification tracking.
“It can give us a databank of all the animals going into the system, and allows us to pull samples of product anywhere, anytime and send them to a lab where we can produce an analysis in as little as 12 hours,” Loftus said. “We can access the full life history of the animal, without having to rely on conventional types of labeling systems that have inherent levels of error.”
Beyond food safety, though, DNA tracing brings a slew of other benefits to the table for retailers, as the experience with Tesco and other retailers is showing, marketers at IdentiGEN pointed out. As retailers continue to roll out proprietary fresh meat programs that promise qualities linked to geographic source, production practices and breeding, the ability to assure origin and conformity to standards will be more important, Loftus said.
“It's important for retailers to have confidence that they're getting what they need from their meat suppliers, like organic, natural or Angus, or premium,” he said. “When a supplier is conscious that there's some regular monitoring going on, we think it creates a culture of compliance, in which everyone in the supply chain is aware of what needs to happen. DNA tracing can drive behavioral changes in the supply chain.”
With some clients, IdentiGEN's system has uncovered problems. In one case, the tracking program revealed a supplier of supposedly higher-value products wasn't meeting the standards. In another instance, a retailer found some of its stores were selling meat acquired locally and not, as required, through central purchasing.
While retailers stand to gain the most benefit from the program, it demands very little from the retailer. Most of the burden falls on suppliers, who must arrange for collection of DNA samples at the slaughterhouse, packing plant or the case-ready assembly operation.
Typically, costs for DNA sampling are shared across the supply chain. Retailers and meat suppliers will determine how to allocate costs, and retailers can decide whether to pass their costs along to the consumer, Loftus said.
“We're well aware of the margins in this industry and the need for this to be cost-effective for it to be viable,” Loftus said. “A penny or two a pound is our goal. If it's communicated effectively, we've found that consumers have demonstrated a strong willingness to support this.”
Though outside the realm of the average supermarket, DNA sampling and tracing may yet become a standard practice in retail meat operations.
For now, though, the task of storing and analyzing DNA samples is mostly in the hands of third parties, such as IdentiGEN. The Dublin, Ireland-based company follows this procedure to execute its DNA-based traceback program:
At the packinghouse, using a proprietary sampling device, a tiny meat scraping is taken from each carcass, or samples can be taken when ear tags are affixed to live animals by the producer.
The sample is analyzed at the lab using an optimized panel of biomarkers, and is stored along with detailed records of where and when it was collected.
Using the same type of device, the retailer can take audit samples and forward them to IdentiGEN, where they are compared with supplier samples to verify origin and production history.
With the knowledge of a product's origin in hand, IdentiGEN can furnish the retailer with information on the supplier's adherence to specifications. Regular reports on suppliers can be issued, or retailers can call for spot checks of suppliers.