MasSpec Pen device can spot meat, fish fraud in seconds

A pen-based mass spectrometry device has shown its value in preventing food fraud, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

The team behind the MasSpec Pen – a handheld device that extracts compounds from a material's surface within seconds and then analyses them on a mass spectrometer – have tested the device to see if it can detect meat and fish fraud in pure filets and ground products.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the team led by Livia Eberlin report that the pen had an accuracy of up to 100 per cent identifying the protein source in a sample within 15 seconds.

The results with the device are as good as the current standard method based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing of genetic material, and approximately 720 times faster, according to the scientists.

It measures the pattern of molecules found in meat, such as carnosine, anserine, succinic acid, xanthine, and taurine, comparing the spectrum with a database.

Other lab-based mass spectrometry methods have also been used to verify meat sources, but generally destroy samples during the process or require sample preparation steps that make them more cumbersome to carry out.

In the latest study, the MasSpec Pen was tested against samples of grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef, venison, cod, halibut, Atlantic salmon, sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout.

It was 95 per cent accurate in distinguishing between the two beef types and 100 per cent able to differentiate beef from venison. Accuracy in the fish model was a little lower at 84 per cent.

"Altogether, the results obtained in this study provide compelling evidence that the MasSpec Pen technology is a powerful alternative analytical method for meat analysis and investigation of meat fraud," write the researchers.

They now plan to expand the method to other meat products and integrate the MasSpec Pen into a portable mass spectrometer for on-site meat authentication.

Meat and fish fraud are global problems, costing consumers billions of dollars every year, according to the team. On top of that, mislabeling products can cause problems for people with allergies, religious or cultural restrictions.

Last year for example, a 20-year analysis of food fraud in the UK beef supply chain by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast found more than 400 cases between 1997 and 2017, with more than a third of incidents taking place in primary processing facilities.

Counterfeiting – defined as products that have been illegally produced with the intention of mimicking or copying a legitimate counterpart – turned out to be the most common form of fraud, accounting for 43 per cent of cases.

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