Ireland’s FSAI trials DNA-based food screening tool

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) says it has a new weapon in the fight against food fraud and misleading labelling.

The new scanning tool makes use of non-targeted. next-generation gene sequencing (NGS) technology developed by Dublin-based food quality specialist Identigen to “allow the identification of all the ingredients and their biological sources in a food.”

According to the FSAI, the new tool will compare the actual ingredients in a food, identified by their DNA profile, with those declared on the label.

“Up to this, DNA testing of food required analysts to know what they wanted to look for specifically and then test for it – such target information is no longer a pre-requisite,” said the FSAI in a statement.

The FSAI put the new DNA food scanning tool through its paces in a pilot study that involved screening 45 plant-based foods and food supplements sourced from Irish health food shops and supermarkets.

It looked for the presence of all plant species in the selected products and identified 14 food “products of interest” that may contain undeclared plant species.

Of the 14 products selected for further investigation, one was confirmed to contain undeclared mustard at significant levels. Mustard is one of the 14 food allergenic ingredients that must be declared in all foods under EU and Irish food law, and the finding adds to the concern about high levels of fraud in the herb and spice category.

Another product – oregano – was found to contain DNA from two undeclared plant species, one (field bindweed) at significant levels. Oregano is well known to be vulnerable to adulteration with bulking ingredients such as olive, myrtle, sumac, cistus or hazelnut leaves, and recent studies have shown that adulterated products contain higher levels of pesticides.

A third product was found to have no DNA from the plant species declared on the label, but instead rice DNA was identified. All three products are under further investigation, says the FSAI.

“Our two year project has proved that next generation sequencing has the capacity to screen a variety of plant-based foods for the presence of undeclared plant species, says Pat O’Mahony, FSAI’s chief specialist, food science and technology, although he stressed that the results of the initial scan will always need to be corroborated by more established analytical techniques.

“Being able to scan the entire DNA content of a food means that it will be difficult to substitute or hide an ingredient of biological origin without it being detected,” he added. “The plan is that in the future, the FSAI will apply the same technology for the screening of meat, poultry and fish products.”

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