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Cotton Sheet Conspiracy Brought Down By DNA Testing

Feb 9, 2016

Americans come into contact with cotton every day. It’s a staple we use for clothing, food products and even cosmetics. But not all cotton is of equal quality, much of what's grown Central California is of the highly prized Pima variety known for its softness and high price. But many times higher grade cotton fabrics have been laced with inferior fiber. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports on how the cotton industry discovered the problem and how they’re fighting back.

American Pima cotton is claimed as some of the finest cotton in the world. Debbie Fletcher only buys cotton products made out of the plant.

Debbie Fletcher loves Pima cotton. She says it's super durable and lasts longer than other fabrics.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“The feel of the fabric is very silky,” Fletcher says. “My husband had a polo shirt made with this and I kind of commandeered it as a nightgown.”

Fletcher’s a housewife in Fresno. She says the larger price tag for the Pima sheets and shirts she wears is worth it.  

“I’m kind of like the princess and the pea when it comes to sleeping,” says Fletcher. “I feel everything. Feels like you are in a luxury hotel with these sheets. I don’t have any sheets that are not Pima cotton.”

People like Fletcher are David Greenstein’s target audience. His company Himatsingka sells Pima cotton sheets to retailers like Costco. He has a lot riding on ensuring his customers are happy. They were until he got a call in early 2014.  

“The customer called me and said do you know that this product that you’re supplying us is not 100 percent pure,” says Greenstein. “We were unaware. We thought we were innocent so we said that can’t be.”

It turns out his expensive sheets weren’t entirely Pima. Somewhere in the supply chain someone was mixing in lower quality cotton and advertising it as a higher quality fabric. That’s a big problem for Greenstein because his textile company sells bedding labeled 100 percent Pima.

"The customer called me and said do you know that this product that you're supplying us is not 100 percent pure. We were unaware. We thought we were innocent so we said that can't be."
Cotton is grown out on the farm and then it goes through a gin where it eventually becomes classic white.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

At first Greenstein didn’t believe the claim. But new technology from a company called Applied DNA Sciences gave the retailer proof. They came up with a way to test cotton fabric for the exact types of fiber used to create it.

“And then we started to understand how this DNA fiber typing works and then we realized it was true,” Greenstein says.

"That allows us to track it to a point of origin to say this comes from the San Joaquin Valley." - Jim Hayard

Greenstein says this DNA technology is a big deal. It has the potential to force the textile industry to rethink how existing supply chains work. He immediately knew where the problem was in his supply chain: Chinese spinners. They turn cotton into thread. 

SigNature DNA is mixed with water and then turned into fog in these pressurized drums.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“We had to get them to admit they were doing something wrong and then we had to get them to agree that it was time to change and to buck an industry trend,” Greenstein says.

The fog coats the cotton with DNA. It's so strong standing that it won't wash of the cotton in any step of the textile making process.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
"A typical bale can produce as many as 3,400 pairs of socks or 750 shirts or 200 full size bed sheets." - Kirk Gilkey.

So he hopped on a plane to China with a delegation of farmers, scientists and retailers to confront the company that was selling the bogus thread. When they arrived they presented their findings.

The PimaCott cotton is shipped to China and then to India before it makes it back to America.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

ROMERO: “When you finished your presentation was it kind of eerie in that moment when they were gathering their thoughts?”
GREENSTEIN: “They asked for time and they left us in the room and went to talk among themselves and they came back and told us they were ready to admit to certain things.”

They only agreed because Greenstein and his crew told them that changes coming would make it harder to cheat in the thread making process.  Applied DNA Sciences helped again by taking an existing system used to catch criminals and applying that same technology to cotton. It’s a botanical DNA serum that’s mixed with water.

The process starts back in the Central Valley where Kirk Gilkey grows Pima cotton in Kings County.  He also stands to lose if Pima cotton sheets aren’t entirely what they’re claimed to be. He says Pima cottons higher price is what’s keeping his family farm afloat.

“It’s given us our only chance over the years,” Gilkey says. “If I wasn’t growing Pima I wouldn’t be in the cotton business anymore.”

He says the higher price of Pima is enough to offset the costs of water and the lure of other crops. Otherwise he would be like the other farmers who have had to leave the business altogether. That’s why he’s on board with the DNA tagging. The process starts like this. After the cotton is harvested it’s packed into huge rectangles that look like giant sticks of butter from the roadside.

It’s then trucked to his gin where a pipe sucks the cotton into the factory. A series of ceiling high machines, dryers and saws rid the cotton of sticks, dirt and seeds. At the end of this process the newly white cotton is sprayed with the DNA serum in the form of fog. James Hayward leads Applied DNA Sciences.

“That binds permanently to the cotton fiber,” Hayward says. “That allows us to track it to a point of origin to say this comes from the San Joaquin Valley.” 

It’s then compacted into 500 pound bales and shipped to China. Now when this cotton is turned into thread and fabric they’ll be able to know exactly what farm it came from.

“A typical bale can produce as many as 3,400 pairs of socks or 750 shirts or 200 full size bed sheets,” Gilkey says.

At this point the bending can only be purchased at Costco, but a larger roll-out will be announced later this year, Greenstein says.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Today a number of other California growers tag their cotton with this DNA serum and Greenstein’s company is using that cotton to make sheets. It’s now on sale under the brand PimaCott at Costco. So I decided to buy a set myself.

ROMERO: “I’m looking for the Pima cotton sheets, the PimaCott version.”
STORE ASSOCIATE: “They’re right up here on your right.”
ROMERO: “How much are they?”
STORE ASSOCIATE:  “$58.99 for queen and $69.49 the king.

Lizhu Davis says the DNA tagging technology could change the way supply chains are monitored in the textile industry.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

To prove that these sheets are as good as their makers claim, I brought them to someone who knows a lot about fabric.

Lizhu Davis manages a fashion merchandising program at Fresno State. Davis liked the sheets so much that she wanted to take mine home.

ROMERO: “So are you going to guy buy some Pima cotton Kirkland Signature sheets?
DAVIS: “Yeah, you make me so curious. I really love what I feel.”  

Davis hopes that the use of DNA technology to track products globally is just the beginning of a change in her industry. She suspects this DNA tagging system could also be used on silk and synthetic materials.