Home scanner allows consumers to detect food fraud
Krystle Hewitt, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2019 2:51PM EDT
If you’re looking for answers when it comes to the contents of your meat, a new at-home DNA kit can help.
Researchers at the University of Guelph have developed a tool to detect food fraud that allows you to see if what you're eating is what it says it is.
The LifeScanner DNA species identification kit uses DNA barcoding and smartphone technology to “identify what you’re eating, what’s in your garden, or in your home.”
So, if you think your meat contains something else, you can find out by scanning the product barcode, taking a picture, collecting a sample of what you want to identify and then mailing it to the lab at the University of Guelph. In about five to eight business days, the results are sent directly to an app on your smartphone.
“It goes into the lab, we extract the DNA from the tissue and we sequence it and then we identify using algorithms and a massive database that’s been collected over the last 15 years,” LifeScanner founder Sujeevan Ratnasingham told CTV Kitchener.
Because of inadequate labelling regulations, customers curious about food authenticity would need to buy the seafood or meat product first and send it for testing before knowing its full contents.
“We see it not as preventing or immediately avoiding food fraud, but being informed by it and then adjusting purchasing behaviour,” Ratnasingham told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Ratnasingham likened the kit and service to online review sites where information that’s collected can change your buying habits.
“You’re not going back to that restaurant if you found out if you were cheated,” Ratnasingham said.
The LifeScanner initially targeted elementary school kids and citizen scientists in 2015, but in March 2018 the researchers behind the kit decided to pivot to food fraud and launch the product available for consumer use.
The food product data is stored in LifeScanner’s database and Ratnasingham said there are collaborative efforts with NGOs such as Oceana and the David Suzuki Foundation to increase awareness and advocacy for full traceability in the seafood industry.
“Our goal is not to be adversarial with food producers, but to help them,” Ratnasingham said.
The food supply industry is something other researchers at the University of Guelph have been looking at for 10 years. Recent studies using DNA barcoding, the same technique in LifeScanner kits, have shown 32 per cent of fish is mislabelled and 20 per cent of sausages sampled from grocery stores contain undeclared meat.
While food fraud is the main focus of LifeScanner, the kit also has also been used for scientific research and as a tool for discovering biological diversity.
“There’s a group of Girl Guides in Kitchener-Waterloo that were using LifeScanner kits to collect insects in their camp area and they found a species of wasp that no one had collected before,” LifeScanner operations lead Megan Milton told CTV Kitchener.
In places such as New Zealand, San Diego and northern Canada, users collected more than 100 new species, which then get entered into the International Barcode of Life Project.
“Now that we have their DNA in this international database if new collections come in that have the same DNA, then we can tie that together and find out more about the life history of that organism,” Milton said.
The current version of the kit costs $50 ($30.50 for a mini-kit) and is available to customers in Canada and the United States. It includes collection instructions, tweezers, a prepaid return package and four sampling vials containing a DNA preservation fluid and enzyme that splits open the cells.
Ratnasingham said the team is expected to launch a “mixed sample analysis kit” by fall 2019, which will identify mystery mixtures contained in prepared packaged foods and can identify up to 20 different species in a single sample.
With a report from CTV Kitchener’s Zayn Jinah