Forensic Tracing

Forensic Tracing

Also Known As

“Inherent Tracers” or “Attribute Fingerprinting”; includes isotope, microbiome, and DNA analysis

Functionality in Traceability Systems

Can be used to confirm the geographic origin (provenance) of organic materials, the species identity of organic materials, and/or the geographic locations, including facilities, through which a traceable good or product has passed, depending on which specific technology is used. Geographic level of detail identified (for example, country, state, or farm level) depends on the specific technology used and analysis conducted.


Forensic tracing refers to naturally occurring elements within a good (a raw material, intermediate product, or final product) or its environment that can be analyzed using specific scientific methodologies to confirm information such as provenance, species, and facilities through which a good has passed. The scientific methodologies include analysis of isotopes, microbiome data, and DNA.

Isotope Analysis

Isotope analysis compares the characteristics of stable isotopes in a biological material to the isotope fingerprint of the geographic origin where the material is believed to have come from to confirm that it did or did not originate there. Isotope testing is conducted by taking physical samples of raw biological materials or of intermediate or final products containing the biological material. Isotopes from the sample batch of product are analyzed in a laboratory and compared to a reference library of unique isotope fingerprints from specific geographic regions that have previously been recorded. Geographic origins – at the level of country, region within a country, or even in some cases a specific farm unit (e.g., a large farm or group of small farms) – can then be confirmed or ruled out.

Microbiome Data Analysis

Naturally-occurring microbes found on the surface of a good (a raw material, an intermediate product, a final product, or a packaged unit of a good) can be analyzed against a reference library of microbial fingerprints which are unique to particular geographic locations, production sites, and facilities to confirm whether or not the good was present at that location, site, or facility. Depending on the supply chain node from which samples are collected, microbiome analysis can confirm the good’s origin or whether or not it has passed through a particular production site or facility.

DNA Analysis

Analysis of DNA inherent to a plant- or animal-based good (fibers, raw materials, meat, and some processed plant-based food products) can be used to confirm species identity, varietal identity, or breed identity. In some cases, this information can be further used to confirm geographic origin as different varietals, species, and breeds may be grown or produced in different regions.

Forensic tracing differs from Additive Tracers in that there is no initial application of the tracer because the substance that is analyzed is naturally occurring in the good itself or in its surrounding environment. Forensic tracing is typically employed as a spot check mechanism (testing a sample of transactions of goods to confirm identity, a presumed geographic origin, or other characteristic), as opposed to additive tracers, which provide an ongoing method of tracking the flow of goods throughout the supply chain.

Associated Traceability System Element

Forensic tracing can support the validation of origin, transit point, or DNA information for a particular good and therefore support a comprehensive traceability program. It can support Scientific Validation methods which act to validate information gathered through Product Tracking and Supply Chain Engagement methods (such as chain of custody documentation and site-level engagement).

Supply Chain Characteristics Feasibility Considerations

An established reference library that includes isotope ratios or microbiome data from presumed origins and/or high-risk origins is required for analysis of isotope ratios and microbiome data. While analysis providers may maintain reference libraries with varying levels of specificity, in some cases, collecting samples from known locations to establish a specific reference library may be the first step of conducting isotope or microbiome data analysis. However, since there is no need for any initial application of a tracer, forensic tracing is well-suited to situations where continuous access to upstream supply chain actors is limited or impractical. Different levels of supplier engagement and participation may be required depending on where and when material samples are collected for analysis (for example, testing a final product derived from an organic material versus testing a raw material or intermediate product) and who performs sample collection.

Some production and manufacturing processes (for example, dyeing, heat exposure, washing) may impact forensic tracing in terms of detection of isotopes, microbes, or DNA. A strong understanding of the manufacturing processes involved in a product’s supply chain is important for determining which forensic tracing approach to use and effectively implementing this technology.


Fashion for Good Pilot
Microbiome analysis
Sustainable Wood
Isotope analysis
University of Bath, University of the West of England, Surrey Business School
DNA analysis

Additional Resources