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Technology driven solutions - the recipe to consumers' peace of mind.

In light of the recent news on unexpected ingredients in ready meals, Simon Batters tells us how DNA consumer assurance delivers protection for your brand and consumers.

Simon Batters is Lloyd’s Register’s Vice President of Technology. Simon is working with organisations across the food sector to help deliver technology driven solutions into the global food supply chain. We talked to him in light of the recent media reports highlighting the presence of unexpected ingredients in ready meals.

So Simon, first of all there’s been a number of reports in the news recently regarding unexpected ingredients in ready meals. You have spent a lot of time working on technology that could potentially help solve this issue. Can you tell us about what you think the impact is and the attitudes of consumers are towards the issue?

I think the issue is that testing technology has advanced significantly over the years and currently technology is available for testing that will show far more detailed results that are quicker and cost effective compared to what we’re typically using in the industry at the moment. A lot of these reports are actually driven from new technology testing that can very quickly show the contents of complex foods such as ready meals or spices to a degree that hasn’t been available to date and hasn’t been widely deployed in the industry.

What do you think is driving the increase in the reports of contaminants and unexpected ingredients?

I fundamentally think it’s a technology issue. I think the media and interested groups who want to highlight the contents of food products have utilised the latest technology and testing. They’ve been able to demonstrate that the current systems are not fool proof and in fact, they are lacking a significant level of detail compared to what’s typical today. It’s very easy for an organisation to commission a test on certain complex food products and to demonstrate the contents of those products in such a way that may shock consumers. But whilst the products maybe safe, the unexpected ingredients in those products are causing a lot of concern.

If this technology is available, why doesn’t the food industry adopt the same testing that is being used to uncover the issues?

Well of course the industry does adopt these new technologies but perhaps not on such a widespread basis. Typically as with most industries the focus is on compliance and meeting the requirements of legislation on things such as food safety and labelling based on previous technology. And I think at this point this new technology is now presenting consumers, all the contents of a food product, to a very detailed degree, including those ‘unexpected ingredients’ in ready meals which is now driving consumer expectations. Whereas many consumers may not fully understand the processes of manufacturing and distributing food or food related legislation, they do have an expectation of trust in food brands and what’s written on the label.

Consumers are now questioning why those products aren’t meeting their expectations by following what’s actually on the packaging, then of course the element of dissatisfaction is coming out. I think we’re seeing that new technology in testing is running ahead, far quicker than the current testing that supports existing legislative frameworks which is creating more advanced consumer driven expectation for assurance.

You're describing a very clear trend that’s happening in the food industry. What do you think the food industry needs to do to evolve to be able to meet this trend?

Well quite simply I think that the industry needs to focus beyond compliance that meets current legislation – the industry needs to embrace new technology that can drive higher levels of assurance that will be expected by consumers. When a consumer reads product packaging and the claims that the brand is making, the question will be, “Do I actually trust the brand? Is there an independent endorsement of what is actually in this product?”
I think it’s a situation where the food industry clearly needs to take the latest food testing technology and incorporate it in the assurance programmes that are used to safeguard consumers and underpin their product claims on the packaging.

If we stay with the assurance terminology what do you think consumers are expecting in terms of food ingredient assurance?

Consumers are expecting and relying on accurate details of ingredients on each product. Certainly no unexpected ingredients! They are also expecting products to be safe and pathogen free and they may have a particular attribute assurance need, such as being ‘gluten free’, allergen free’ or ‘non-GMO’ which ranges from a personal preference to serious health concern.

I think at the moment the media has been demonstrating the food testing with the latest technology is more revealing than it has ever been. And so I think they’re expecting the industry to use the same technology, and to apply that to the assurances that they give consumers regarding the products that they’re buying.

So how about NGS DNA testing is that an approved mechanism by the FDA or other legislative bodies?

NGS (New Generation Sequencing) DNA testing has been around for some time, however, for the food industry it’s relatively new. Also it’s not just the testing, it’s how you actually process the data against a reference database of DNA species. I should imagine many of these ‘unexpected ingredients’ scares are being driven by NGS DNA testing because of the type of results it produces. One test for example can deliver hundreds of ingredients from a particular sample, so it is suitable to test complex products that have many hundred ingredients and it could detail those ingredients from one test.

To date the current industry practice for DNA testing food is PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) DNA testing. PCR testing needs to be undertaken and targeted for each individual ‘expected’ and ‘unexpected’ ingredient. So if you're targeting what you believe should be in the sample to confirm what it is, then that will require a PCR test per ingredient but also additional PCR tests will be required for each ‘unexpected’ ingredient to confirm their absence.

As it is prohibitively expensive to undertake hundreds of PCR DNA tests, legislation has understandably been less focussed on testing for ‘unexpected ingredients’ or ‘food attributes’ and given more focus on testing for food safety, now all can be satisfied by one NGS DNA test.

With NGS testing, the results are based on how many referenced species you would have in your database to identify what’s in that sample. So yes, I think NGS DNA testing is certainly a major breakthrough for the food industry and although not currently adopted and specified by the FDA and similar legislative bodies, that situation will likely change in the not too distant future.

When applied in the food industry and especially for complex products such as ready meals and, and spices, to be able to have one test at the end of the production cycle before packaging, is not only highly effective it is also highly cost effective. For the food producer this generates a compelling case for internal assurance and to be able to leverage this to translate, not only for, consumer assurance, but for competitive advantage!  To be able to demonstrate to consumers that complex food products actually meet their expectations in terms of assurance for attributes and unexpected ingredients is a huge breakthrough.

Talk to us a little about Lloyd’s Register’s DNA1 Scheme - is it recognised by existing schemes and legislation?

In creating the first NGS DNA consumer assurance based product – DNA1, LR has joined forces with Clear Labs an NGS DNA testing business based in the San Francisco Bay area and integrated Clear Lab’s NGS testing and their unique DNA species database (currently over 2.1 million species) together with LR’s expertise in product and management system audit and certification. DNA1 is currently ‘ahead of legislation’ so yet to be recognised. Even so there are no restrictions regarding it’s deployment, Food producers and retailers can choose to adopt DNA1 now and deliver food products with enhanced assurance to their consumers.

And finally, what can you tell us about DNA1 and blockchain?

Blockchain is on a lot of people’s minds at the moment. I think for the last year blockchain has been a focal point for many conferences, debates, discussions, presentations and solutions. But I think we need to understand that all technologies have a specific application and blockchain, for the food supply chain (Public Permissioned Consortium configuration) is clearly is about looking backwards helping us record contracts, transactions and documents relating to food supply, between interested parties that is transparent and Immutable, so they cannot be erased.

Supply chain documents and transactions between interested parties, that are written directly into code blocks by consenting stakeholders make a far more effective proposition than producing and exchanging the documents and paperwork that we do today, perfect for the complexities of the food supply chain.

Blockchain will enable very fast investigations when there’s an outbreak of food borne disease and we should be able to understand where a particular product came from, how it was transported and zero in on which batch it was manufactured in, far quicker than existing systems. So traceability is certainly one of Blockchain’s main attributes.
What blockchain can’t do is improve food safety as it is a digital record system.

DNA1 uses two pieces of data from independent single sources of truth - it doesn’t need to be agreed by consenting parties when the data is created. It’s coming from the actual NGS test data from the Lab (Clear Labs) and the actual assessment and certification data from the certification body (LR). Instead of writing this data into blocks of immutable code it has far greater value being supplied by API in real-time.

They are two different digital technologies that coexist extremely well so if you can imagine using DNA1 to provide forward-looking assurance to clients and consumers about the contents of a product. Blockchain is at the back end as it were recording all the transactions in the supply chain to give you a full picture of how that product came together, how it was distributed and how it was retailed.

Okay so obviously the LR’s DNA1 would be very relevant in the current climate for manufacturers, retailers and consumers. What can you tell us about the availability and the timelines concerning when LR’s DNA1 will be ready?

Currently, we’re trialling DNA1 so we’re working with some food manufacturers who wish to remain anonymous because it’s very new. But we’re actually working with a number of organisations to pilot this approach right through to their consumers.

The consumer assurance element is driven by a product’s packaging that displays an LR DNA1 product shield and QR code. Scanning the QR code will deliver a real-time certificate and test results to their mobile device – Consumer Assurance in the palm of their hands.

As testing continues I should imagine we’ll be seeing products with the LR product shields on the shelves perhaps in between nine and twelve months’ time.

To be able to demonstrate to consumers that complex food products meet their expectations in terms of assurance for attributes and unexpected ingredients is a huge breakthrough.

Simon Batters

Vice President, Technology Solutions, Lloyd's Register

How about if you could just talk to us about one last thing and that is how do you see the future of testing. So if you fast-forward a couple of years and you're living in an environment where the consumers have a level of assurance they’re comfortable with. What are the components that would provide that level of assurance?

We’re looking at all levels of technology here so we’re not just discussing the type of DNA testing. I'm sure that the processing of those results will become quicker. The results will become available on a faster basis. I think consumers who are extremely well connected and tech-savvy at the moment with mobile devices will be able to walk into a store and very quickly understand which products have a level of testing that can give them a heightened level of confidence.

At the moment, we’re working within the bounds of available technology which is the technology that we’ve described. But also for consumers to actually be able to walk in and scan a barcode on a product and to see the output of the DNA test for that product is, sounds pretty futuristic but that’s available now. I think in the future, faster results will be available for the consumer. So at this stage, consumers will drive this market, they will demand it, if they know that the information is available and if they know the technology is available they will actually chose those products that actually present that information. 
You know consumers have actually created markets where they have a concern over food contents such as allergens, ingredients, authenticity and attributes such as non-GMO and gluten free. They will actually drive those markets further given the option for more accurate test results and more dependable assurance.

Simon Batters is Lloyd’s Register’s Vice President of Technology. Based in California, USA, Simon is an innovative leader with over 25 years International experience within the Assurance and Certification markets. Simon has held a number of senior LR leadership roles in Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America where he is currently specialising in developing Assurance solutions for Industry 4.0.

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