Barcodes to authenticate quality of food, medicine

July 16, 2012 - 

In 2003, researchers at the University of Guelph proposed “DNA barcoding” as a way to identify different animal, fish and plant species.

DNA barcoding uses a very short genetic sequence from a standard part of the genome the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes from universal product codes.

Previously, biological specimens were only identified by way of studying “morphological features”, which are the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features, such as shape, structure, color and pattern.

In some cases, a trained technician could make routine identifications using morphological “keys”, but in most cases an experienced professional taxonomist was needed.

The idea behind DNA barcoding is to make routine identifications available to everyone, since barcoding allows non-specialists to obtain genetic identifiers from tiny amounts of tissue.

This is not to say that traditional identification techniques are less important, but rather that DNA barcoding can serve as a new tool to supplement knowledge as well as being an innovative device for non-experts who need to make a quick identification.

Dr. Mark Stoeckle from the Rockefeller University has outlined the history and scientific benefits of DNA barcording technology:

The commercial benefits and opportunities for the biometric marketplace through DNA barcording within the retail and wholesale food industry seem endless.

DNA barcoding technology can be used in restaurants to assure customers that the fillet or caviar they are being served is a genuine fancy fish, and not a mislabeled local breed.

David Schindel from the Consortium for the Barcode of Life has noted that restaurant industry leaders and seafood suppliers have started discussions about using the technology to authenticate food.  He believes the marketplace is going to eventually going to have a self-regulating mechanism that embraces barcoding as a mark of quality.

Another application for DNA barcording will be to authenticate herbal medicines. By utilizing the technology, consumers will be able to identify whether such products are of actual medicinal value.

Determining the authenticity of products within these markets has huge potential. The estimated size of the herbal product marketplace is US$62 to $100 billion in total revenue worldwide.  The size of the world’s seafood market was estimated to exceed US$388.9 billion in 2010.  From these projections, it is safe to say that potential earnings from biometric firms in this field could be potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if the technology can be effectively commercialized and marketed.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.