DNA technology helps to assure pima’s purity

Issue Date: April 27, 2016
By Ching Lee
Supima, which promotes pima cotton and licenses its brand to mills, manufacturers and retailers, is using DNA technology to test fibers as a way to spot-check the integrity of products carrying its name.
Photo/Scott Monaco

California is the nation's largest producer of pima cotton, which is valued for its extra-long staple fibers and commands a premium price. But for years, there's been suspicion of tampering in some spinning mills by blending pima with less-expensive and lower-quality cottons, while still calling it 100 percent pima.

Now, leaders in the business have proof that such blending occurs—and they are cracking down on it by using DNA technology, which has allowed them to test the cotton for impurities, as well as tag, track and trace their products to guarantee authenticity.

"So much cotton goes overseas after it leaves the growers' fields," said Merced County cotton farmer Cannon Michael. "And in the past, you had absolutely no clue where it was going to end up exactly or what people were going to do with it."

Michael grows pima cotton for the American division of Himatsingka, a manufacturer and distributor of home textile products. The company received startling news from scientists at Applied DNA Sciences in New York. They were testing fiber samples of U.S. textile products and notified Himatsingka that a pima product the company was selling wasn't the real thing.

Though the company initially didn't believe the report and went through a "denial period," CEO David Greenstein said he later came to accept that ADNAS was showing him problems in his supply chain.

"That's when we started to realize that there was blending going on," he said. "So we went back to Applied DNA Sciences to try to find solutions."

ADNAS currently uses two patented technologies to tackle the problem. The first one is a fiber test, or what ADNAS calls fiberTyping, which detects the cotton's DNA. Scientists can then tell if the fiber contains Gossypium barbadense DNA found in extra-long staple pima cotton, Gossypium hirsutum DNA found in upland cotton, or both.

Supima, a promotional organization for pima cotton that licenses mills, manufacturers and retailers the use of its brand name, has been using fiberTyping to spot-check the integrity of products carrying its name. The group, which comprises pima growers from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, started working with ADNAS several years ago after some of its longtime yarn manufacturers told Supima that they "strongly suspect some spinners were blending Supima with other cottons," past-President Jesse Curlee said in a newsletter last summer.

"These spinners are obviously blending to reduce their fiber/manufacturing cost," Curlee said. "This deceptive practice has been suspected for years now, but it appears to be much more widespread than we had thought."

In fact, ADNAS found that some 89 percent of U.S textile products it tested were not compliant with their label claims, said MeiLin Wan, ADNAS vice president of textile sales. A more-recent study the company did, testing samples from around the world, found that 60 percent to 70 percent of textile products had deceptive labeling.

Wan noted that when cotton prices spiked in 2012, selling for $2 a pound, blending became more rampant because spinners could make greater margins by using much less pima and, in some cases, no pima at all, as the tests showed.

Michael said before fiber testing, manufacturers and retailers were relying on paperwork certifying that their product is pure, even though there was no checking or enforcement along the supply chain.

"In some ways, if you get a rubber stamp that says you're licensed and there's no way to do a lot of checking after the fact, it almost incentivizes people who got that license to use less pima, because pima is expensive," he said.

Himatsingka is going one step beyond fiber testing, using ADNAS DNA technology known as SigNature T to track cotton from the field through all the steps of its entire supply chain, to prevent tampering.

The tracking system employs DNA that ADNAS has botanically engineered. Through a misting process, the DNA—detectable in minuscule amounts—is applied to the cotton after it leaves the field, marking it so it can be traced and verified from the gin to the finished product. The DNA sticks permanently to the fiber and is not affected by dyes, bleaches, finishing chemicals or other manufacturing processes. Once tagged, companies such as Himatsingka can identify its fibers with a simple DNA test commonly used in forensic labs and hospitals every day, said ADNAS President and CEO James Hayward.

"This is a huge benefit for the pima farmer because what they want is steady, reliable demand for what is a superior fiber," he said. "If the consumer is impacted on quality because the supply chain is cheating, then of course that will impact all the way back to the farmers."

Greenstein said while the DNA tagging material is expensive to manufacture, because so little is used—at a cotton-to-marker ratio of 1-to-1 billion—the company has been able to "keep it cost-neutral to the consumer."

While tagging and testing does add another step to the entire manufacturing process, Greenstein said it is necessary not only as a deterrent for those cutting corners along the supply chain, but also as an assurance to consumers that "we say what we mean."

"It's like having a 'Beware of Dog' sign on the front door," he said. "But you have to have a dog, too. So it's a combination of the deterrent and testing that we think gives us the closest chance to get pure."

More than 100 million pounds of American pima cotton have been marked since 2013, according to ADNAS. Himatsingka is currently rolling out its PimaCott brand for pima-cotton products that have been tagged and verified using this DNA technology. The brand hit store shelves last fall, and Greenstein said more products bearing the brand will arrive in stores this autumn.

PimaCott uses only pima cotton from San Joaquin Valley farms, with its first harvest in 2014. It now contracts with 11 California farmers.

With DNA technology and what PimaCott is doing, Wan said farmers now can pick up a textile product in the store and know their cotton was used to make it.

"That, to me, is the revolution in the industry," she said. "It closed the loop and brought the farmer closer to the consumer."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.