The Internet of Food Will Help Us Reconnect with Our Eats
How analyzing food at the molecular level helps us understand what's going into our bodies
As health conscious consumers, we continue to read more about allergens and contaminants in the food we buy at local markets and food chains. So how does one avoid that eating what might make us sick? Enter Clear Labs, a team of software engineers and genomic scientists that are indexing the world’s food supply in order to help set worldwide standards for food integrity.
The group’s flagship product, Clear View, uses next-generation DNA sequencing to provide insights on how food brands can provide accurate information on what is in the products they produce for consumers.
Consumers Are Food Conscious
Consumers have become increasingly conscious about what they eat. They want to know where it comes from, what’s in it and how it got to their table. The desire for accurate food information goes beyond whether things such as GMOs are bad for you or not; consumers want to know what they’re putting in their bodies for health reasons, but they also want to know if the food has been ethically acquired. According to Center for Food Integrity, environmental impact, animal welfare and worker labor laws all factor into what people want revealed.
What Clear View Does
Clear Lab’s technology is very similar to sequencing human genomes in clinical trials. The company tests and identifies ingredient accuracy, origin, GMOs, bacterial contamination, allergens, nutritional data and off-label additives in order to find everything that is in a given food sample. The goal is to index all pre-made food products in a comprehensive genomic database so that consumers, retailers and manufacturers have a precise molecular view of what’s going on in the food they eat, buy and sell.
The Clear View database also doesn’t include information about synthetic chemicals and hormones, some of the components in food that are most distressing to consumers. According to Clear Labs, there are things about food quality that are not encompassed by DNA tests, like pesticides in food, hormones, and antibiotics. The platform currently partners with third party labs for non-DNA testing. In their next product release, they also plan to incorporate GMO testing.
Consumer Education Food Information Videos
After their launch last fall, Clear Labs has begun producing informational reports including consumer videos about the integrity of common foods we eat like turkey and hot dogs in order to build awareness and understanding of its platform. Maria Fernandez Guajardo, VP of Product at Clear Labs, shared:
“Our videos in each report allow us to deliver the highlights of our findings to consumers in an engaging and accessible way. The scientific data our technology produces can be overwhelming at first glance, but our marketing team does a great job of putting it in terms that the general consumer can relate to and learn from. Video is a great channel to deliver that content.”
The videos are well developed and showcase how errors in labeling happen. What’s more (as in the turkey video) we learn that many mass brands can sometimes be the safest things to consume based on label and content accuracy. Clear Labs believes that the reaction to their reports by consumers, industry, nonprofits, and government affirms that they doing the right thing.
“Governmental bodies like the FDA realize this as well, which is why the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) gives the food industry time to adopt new standards. Our work is part of a broader ongoing process of raising the bar for safety and quality across the food industry,” shared Fernandez Guajardo.
How Brands Can Leverage Clear View
If a retailer or manufacturer wants to know more about a particular food, the company can ship a sample to Clear Labs or an associated third-party lab, where researchers perform next-generation sequencing on the sample. The researchers sequence all the DNA found in the sample and compare them to what’s in the database, which contains information from the company’s previous tests and other open-source genetic databases through the NIH and others. That could help retailers identify gluten in foods that are labeled gluten-free, for example, or even disease-causing bacteria before the product even reaches a customer. It can also help food manufacturers vet the best suppliers.
According to Fernandez Guajardo, many large brands are taking steps to improve the integrity and increase label accuracy. “The industry is heading in the right direction. A great example is Campbell, which recently announced that they are planning on voluntarily labeling GMO ingredients. At Clear Labs, we’ve been working with a number of leading food brands and manufacturers to help them verify the quality of their foods, vet high-quality suppliers, validate the authenticity and quality of ingredients, and reduce the risk of recalls. We’ve been encouraged by the response to our new technology and the willingness to adopt higher standards,” she shared.
Could Clear Score Impact New Label Legislation?
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. If it becomes law, it will cancel existing laws requiring foods developed using genetic modification or containing genetically modified crops in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont and prevent other states from requiring such labels. In terms of food quality assurance, currently the Non-GMO Project and FoodSafety.gov are the only organizations with programs in place. So this is where Clear Labs’ technology may come in handy.
Fernandez Guajardo shared:
“We’ve developed an original methodology, which is scientifically rigorous and statistically accurate; in fact, as far as food labeling goes, there’s nothing out there that’s anywhere close to being as objective as our molecular analysis. That said, we’re very open to partnering with and supporting groups like the GMO Project and FoodSafety.gov. In fact, one of our potential use cases for the Clear Labs platform is for use by regulatory bodies performing food safety checks and enforcement. It’s reasonable to expect that we’re entering into these conversations during our private beta.”
So what happens if Congress passes the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015? Clear Labs believes we’ll see a lot more Campbell-type announcements.
Accuracy Leads to Better Food Integrity
It’s safe to say that the food industry is at a turning point. The food industry realizes it needs to meet consumer demand. At the same time, retailers and manufacturers continue to see low margins and are threatened by unseen quality issues in their supply chains. Their brands and their bottom lines depend on differentiation. According to Fernandez Guajardo, each party can have what they want:
“The way we see it, accurate labeling helps consumers feel confident in the food they buy and feed their families. They can rest assured that their food is safe and free from contamination or unwanted ingredients. From a business perspective, the companies taking proactive steps to adopt higher labeling standards are also therefore adopting a differentiator that allows them to stand out from competitors, improve the strength of their brand, and increase margins.”
Going back to the consumer trend referenced above, when asked what the impetus for supply-chain transparency is caused by, Fernandez Guajardo shared, “I actually think it’s surprising that it has taken so long for supply-chain transparency to become a major cultural issue. The advent of factory farming and industrial food manufacturing alienated many of us from the realities of food production. But food is emotional—it’s part of our cultural identity and our family history.”
Societal Tipping Points Forever Change the Way We Do Business
Between issues in our food supply chain reaching the mainstream consciousness, the nationwide fight against obesity and a shift toward healthier food, our society has simply reached a turning point where consumers are ready to reconnect with the food that sustains them. Brands will have to show their customers the ‘how,’ ‘what’ and ‘why’ of all they do.