FSAI announces new DNA scanning tool

25 Feb 2019

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) now has a new DNA scanning tool to identify the entire DNA content of a food, proactively identifying all the ingredients and their biological sources.

FSAI announces new DNA scanning tool

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) now has a new DNA scanning tool to identify the entire DNA content of a food. The new analytical tool can proactively identify all the ingredients and their biological sources in a food, which it says will aid regulators in protecting consumers in relation to potential food fraud and/or misleading labelling. The FSAI worked with a commercial laboratory (Identigen) over the past two years in adapting a relatively new DNA sequencing technology known as “next generation sequencing”, so that it could be used as a DNA scanning tool in food. The idea is to 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. Now, such target information is no longer a pre-requisite.

According to Dr Pat O’Mahony, Chief Specialist, Food Science and Technology, FSAI this applied use of next generation sequencing is unique in a regulatory context and will be a significant new asset for regulators to identify exactly what is contained in a food and if that matches what is stated on the product’s labelling. It is now possible to scan the entire DNA content of a food without any prior knowledge or suspicion of what may or may not be present in that food.

“Even with the restriction of having to target the DNA of certain plant or animal species in previous studies, the FSAI has been able to detect food allergens and GMOs, and demonstrate the mislabelling of fish products. Of course targeted DNA analysis was also the method used by the FSAI in discovering horsemeat in beef products, which ultimately brought the global awareness of food fraud to a new level.”

The restrictions imposed by the need to target only specific species and ingredients in products led the FSAI to look for new innovative ‘non-targeted’ screening methods. Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS) is the basis of the new DNA food scanning tool and has been applied successfully by the FSAI to screen 45 plant-based foods and food supplements 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. Another product (oregano) was found to contain DNA from two undeclared plant species, one at significant levels. 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.

“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. It is important to understand that any 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. The plan is that in the future, the FSAI will apply the same technology for the screening of meat, poultry and fish products,” concluded Dr O’Mahony.

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