Revolutionary bar coding technique | Fraudsters with false food labels can now be caught red-handed with new technology
GUELPH, Ont. — Restaurateurs beware: Chris Weland is not the guy you want to serve a bogus meat dish to if he is out for a meal.
The forensic analyst at the University of Guelph’s Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding has used his former police sleuthing skills and the university’s revolutionary bar coding techniques to investigate food content claims.
In some cases, the results have caused a sensation.
In 2010, he was hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test hamburger. Instead of pure beef, he found DNA traces of bear and elk.
In 2012, a similar examination for the FDA of salami for sale showed traces of lion meat mixed with pig or wild boar and American black bear.
An investigation of fish products on the market in the United States showed that close to one-third of products were mislabelled, typically using cheaper seafood but selling it as higher end.
He has found some fish food labelling fraud in Canada, but hamburgers tested as advertised.
“You never know what you are buying on the grocery store shelves,” Weland said.
“I mean, who would ever think they are eating lion in salami or black bear, for that matter?”
His pursuit of food content verification is one of the practical applications of the university’s DNA bar coding program, which sets a world standard for recording and cataloguing DNA from hundreds of thousands of world plant and animal species.
“This really has a food safety aspect because there are components of food on our shelves that is not declared and that could cause allergic or health issues,” he said.
For Paul Hebert, scientific director of the university’s International Barcode of Life secretariat and a pioneer in DNA bar code technology, Weland’s work is a practical way that his project helps consumers.
“I think the present system completely ignores the food chain security issue and in the food system, people are being defrauded in a massive way,” he said.
He said lower quality beef is being substituted for products that claim higher quality beef, while seafood fraud is rampant.
“This really is a way to verify that what food companies claim they are selling is what they are selling and our ability to test the DNA composition of products quickly really is a benefit to consumers and the food industry,” said Hebert.
The FDA has embraced the DNA bar code technology as a food safety and verification tool. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not.
Back in Weland’s lab, there are boxes of food products he has tested, wood samples and a box from the RCMP in northern New Brunswick with a question.
The wood samples help him test products using the DNA bar code in the centre’s computer system library to determine if they come from endangered wood species.
For the former police forensic investigator, the New Brunswick box contained wall panelling from a room where two boys were reported to have died when a python escaped its cage and strangled them.
Did the wallboard in the boys’ room show signs of python DNA to back up the story?
“There was python DNA on the wall,” he said. “The story holds up.”