Food recalls are becoming common fodder in the news, from rubber pieces in chicken nuggets to multi-state outbreaks of salmonella-contaminated beef. Each year, food safety outbreaks cause 9.4 million illnesses in the US, with the average recall costing a manufacturer $15 million.
The subject of whether our food system is as safe as it could be is a widely debated one. Recently, the FDA rolled out a new set of rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that are intended to move towards the industry thinking about food safety preventatively instead of reactively. Some of these rules include enhanced safety protocols for produce and tougher inspections on imports.
This is a daunting task, considering the sheer volume of food that is produced, handled, shipped, prepared, and consumed in the US and globally.
But a number of startups are taking a closer look at whether emerging technologies can help us find dangerous contaminants and pathogens before the damage is done.
Next-generation sequencing startup Clear Labs is partnering with Oxford Nanopore to provide rapid testing in food manufacturing for pathogens such as salmonella. Clear Labs’ flagship product Clear Safety will leverage Oxford Nanopore’s GridION DNA sequencing technology. Paired with Clear Safety’s bioinformatics platform and robotics automation, the GridION technology will help Clear Safety deliver quick turn-around time on high-volume pathogen testing providing 99.99% accuracy in identifying pathogen absence or presence.
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“Clear Labs’ mission is to create better solutions for food safety and quality testing through next-gen DNA sequencing. When scouting the space and trying to find the best platform to work with, the Oxford Nanopore stood out in terms of meeting our needs,” Clear Labs CEO Sasan Amini told AgFunderNews.
“Oxford Nanopore’s GridION technology lets us sequence signals created from samples and translate them into meaningful insight for end users. What we are really combining here is Clear Labs proprietary sample preparation, bioinformatics with Oxford Nanopore’s sequencing component.”
Clear Safety comes in a box and users are provided with the tools they need to take samples to place inside the box for rapid testing. Clear Labs also provides the consumables that the device needs to operate including reagents, which is like providing cartridges of printer ink for a printer.
The device not only determines whether salmonella is present in a sample, but it also identifies which strain of salmonella is present. This is critical given that not every strain of the pathogen causes the deadly foodborne illness outbreaks that have plagued everything from poultry to produce.
Creating a rapid detection tool for food safety seemed like a lofty dream to many folks when Clear Labs first started, Amini explained. One of the biggest challenges that the team had to overcome was integrating a host of technologies within one platform while making sure the device was easy to use in a fast-paced food manufacturing setting.
It also started out as a service-based product, but Clear Labs ultimately decided that democratizing the technology and making it more accessible to a variety of end users was the better path. This, of course, meant ensuring that the product would be foolproof in anyone’s hands.
“Doing this well in-house is not easy, but enabling other people to do it in a reliable fashion without help is even more difficult. We had to take the platform to a level of maturity where it could work in the hands of many different customers. That was the biggest challenge,” Amini said.
So far, users have provided a heap of positive comments as well as feedback on how the device can be improved.
“When you are dealing with so many different customers, more and more improvements requests are made or requests for new features come your way. This is how you make a product better,” Amini says. “Overall, the feedback from customers is extremely positive especially when it comes to a 24-hour turnaround time, which is critical for perishable food.”
Amini and the Clear Labs team hope to expand Clear Safety’s testing capabilities in the future based on the positive feedback they are receiving for their salmonella tests. There are three other key pathogens that plague the food system: campylobacter, listeria, and e.coli.
“Another area that we are super excited about is how we can leverage all the data we collect to provide more added value to the end customer because Clear Labs is redefining the space by going from binary solutions that simply tell you whether a pathogen is or is not present to a solution that generates so much information. We can start slicing and dicing that info in so many different ways. A big building block of doing that is collecting that info in a reliable fashion, which we are doing, and combining it with data science and machine learning.”
Clear Labs also recently announced a strategic investment from Tyson Ventures.
To see how Clear Safety works, watch this video.