CSI for cows

A new smartphone app lets consumers check their meat against a DNA database.

Meat App_521 (photo credit: Elad Brin)
Meat App_521
(photo credit: Elad Brin)
After last week’s pre-Pessah shopping marathons, we’ve all gotten a firsthand lesson in food costs. And the unfortunate reality is that prices are going up on just about every food item out there. The supermarkets just can’t help it; prices of the commodities that go into almost everything on store shelves have risen considerably in recent months.
So it’s a bit suspicious when food products like steaks, hamburgers, breast of veal and the like go on sale. With feed prices so high, the price of cattle has shot up, and meat is an item that’s always in demand. Why would the supermarket offer a discount? Well, that discount beef might be a “loss leader” – a special designed to get you into the store, where you’ll hopefully buy some non-sale items. But what if there were another reason – for example, that the expiration date for that steak was dangerously close? If you knew the meat had been hanging around the store for months, you might have second thoughts about buying it; and the store, which is interested in getting rid of that steak, is certainly not going to tell you how old it is.
Now, however, an Israeli company has developed an application that empowers you, the consumer, when it comes to buying steak, burgers, or any other meat product.
Bactochem, one of Israel’s leading food analysis firms, is working on building the world’s largest database... of cattle DNA.
The information in the database allows Bactochem to trace the provenance of any piece of meat on supermarket shelves, says Guy Evron, the director of the project. “Our lab can analyze any item that comes from cattle in our database. It’s like CSI for cows!” There’s no cheating when it comes to DNA, says Evron. If you bring a steak into the Bactochem lab, the company will tell you on what farm the cow grew up, where it was slaughtered, how old it was when it got turned into a steak, how long the meat has been on supermarket shelves, whether it was ever sick, what it was fed – and much more.
Why bother? “Consumers who buy a particular kind of meat – organically raised, Angus beef, kosher – are interested in ensuring they get what they paid for, and the companies that supply those cuts have an interest in providing assurances to their customers that the products they are getting are authentic,” says Evron. “Many people try to avoid meat from cattle that have been inoculated with specific vaccines, while others prefer to buy only meat that was aged for a specific period. Our technology provides them with the ability to easily get the answers to those questions.”
FOR THOSE who don’t want to shlep their steaks to the Bactochem labs, the company is developing a smartphone app that will enable any consumer to tap into the database.
Here’s how it works: A cattle processor, which buys live cattle from a farmer, sends in samples from each of the animals in its herd, and Bactochem analyzes the animal’s DNA information and puts it into a database. The information is encoded with a lengthy security code, which is then placed on a barcode that gets attached to every package or carton of meat the processor produces from each specific cow. If the meat is cut and repackaged at a supermarket warehouse, the packaging staff is told to attach the barcode to each particular package.
When a customer wants to get information about the meat they’ve picked out of the store refrigerator, they open up the Bactochem application and upload a photo of the barcode. The system matches the barcode up with the DNA information, and all the data about the particular cow are instantly beamed back to the customer.
Bactochem has been working on its cattle DNA database for about five years and has built up a substantial amount of information about Israeli cows. In fact, says Evron, various government agencies, including the Agriculture Ministry and the police, have consulted with the company to develop a case against cattle smugglers.
“Our database and app technology can be used in a number of ways,” he notes.
“The smartphone app is just one example of how we can use and deliver information about the cattle we know about,” Evron adds.
“We originally developed the smartphone app for kosher consumers here in Israel, so they could easily verify whether the meat they were consuming was properly slaughtered,” he says. Now the company is in the process of working out a deal with one of the largest distributors of meat in the US.
“The company will register millions of head of cattle in our database, and consumers will be able to check up on the origins of the beef they buy in supermarkets around the country,” explains Evron.
“With all the health issues surrounding beef these days, including meat coming from cattle infected with various diseases, as well as listeria-tainted beef, the company wants to give consumers extra reassurance that the meat they are eating is safe.”
That’s an important point. As we all know, burgers and steaks taste a lot better when you know they’re not tainted with germs you’d rather stay away from. Thanks to Bactochem, dinner just got a lot more enjoyable.