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These invisible, edible biological tags help track down the cause of E. coli outbreaks

If you’re unlucky enough to eat a salad contaminated with E. coli, it’s possible that you’ll never know the original source of the bug. After one recent outbreak of illnesses linked to leafy greens that ended in December, the CDC said that its investigation couldn’t identify the specific type or brand that had caused the problem. Even if a farm is flagged as the source, it often takes so long for the investigation to be completed that the lettuce isn’t recalled before consumers eat it.

At a startup called Aanika Biosciences, scientists are working on new technology that can change the process: the tech places invisible, edible microbial tags on each head of lettuce. That makes the tracking process vastly more simple than combing back through records of the produce supply chain on paper, trying to untangle where lettuce came from after it’s been through processing centers that mix greens from multiple farms together.

Right now, it’s nearly impossible to know the source of greens in a particular bag of salad mix sold at a store. “You’ve got a ton of different farms all flowing to a processing plant where it’s washed and packaged, and then that goes to multiple distributors and then thousands of end products and customers,” says Vishaal Bhuyan, cofounder and CEO of Aanika Biosciences. “When you have an outbreak, you can take one step quickly, because you have a serial number on the bag. But once you try to figure out what farms are in that bag, it becomes extremely difficult.”

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