Last year, nearly 550 food products were recalled in the United States. Nearly half of those recalls were a result of biological contamination, a whopping 65% of which was due to Listeria monocytogenes, according to Rentokil. The company recently released an infographic about the cost of a product recall, pulling out some of the key trends in food product recalls in the United States and the United Kingdom. Next to biological contamination, mislabeling continues to be a large issue.
With more regulatory and consumer scrutiny being placed on the authenticity of food products, companies must use technologies that can verify products and ingredients, and detect contaminants. NSF International recently acquired AuthenTechnologies, a testing laboratory that provides DNA-species identification services to improve authenticity, safety and quality of natural products. Using shorter segments and validated reference materials, AuthenTechnologies employs a DNA sequencing method that can identify “almost any” species and detect contaminants that cannot be distinguished morphologically or chemically. The method also screens for allergens, GMOs, fillers and filth.
“As the food supply chain becomes more complex and regulations continue to evolve and become more rigorous, this technology is becoming essential to achieving regulatory compliance and brand protection while preventing issues associated with fraud, mislabeling and adulteration,” said Lori Bestervelt, Ph.D, international executive vice president and chief technology officer at NSF, in a company release. AuthenTechnologies’ co-founder Danica Harbaugh Reynauld, Ph.D., adds, “We’ve developed a more highly specific DNA methodology capable of identifying a single organism to a complex blend of unlimited ingredients.” Reynauld, who will join NSF as global director of scientific innovation, will lead the NSF AuthenTechnologies center of excellence with NSF’s global network of labs.
In comparison to DNA barcoding, next-generation DNA sequencing is highly specific and can identify species in highly processed materials and complex mixtures. DNA barcoding is unable to differentiate between closely related species and is less suitable in detecting extracts as well.
Full traceability throughout the entire seafood supply chain is recommended following a study released yesterday by Oceana involving the mislabeling of salmon. The organization found that 43% of samples taken from restaurants and grocery stores were mislabeled, with DNA testing uncovering that 69% of mislabeling involved farmed Atlantic salmon that was labeled and sold as wild-caught salmon. According to Oceana, the report is the largest salmon mislabeling study in the United States yet.
“The federal government should provide consumers with assurances that the seafood they purchase is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana in a press release. “Traceability needs to be required for all seafood to ensure important information about which species it is, whether it was farmed or wild caught, and how and where it was caught follows all seafood from boat (or farm) to plate.”
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Oceana combined a nationwide study of 384 samples with a winter survey of 82 samples to learn whether there was a correlation between time and location. Findings revealed that the majority of the mislabeling in restaurants occurred when the fish was out of season. In addition, high rates of mislabeling were found on the East coast—37% in New York City, 45% in Washington, DC, and 48% in Virginia. It is important to note that the 43% of the samples deemed mislabeled derived from the smaller winter survey.
Samples were considered mislabeled if:
- Described as wild, Pacific, or Alaska and DNA testing proved them to be farmed Atlantic salmon
- Labeled as a specific type of salmon but testing proved them to be a different species
In the report Oceana takes issue with FDA’s guidance on seafood naming, calling it “neither clear nor consistent”, along with Country of Origin Labeling for seafood. The organization urges the Presidential Task Force on fish and seafood fraud (established last year) to set forth a requirement that all seafood sold domestically have documentation proving it came from a legal source, along with full supply chain traceability. The task force released its final action plan in March, but Oceana is asking that the group expand documentation requirements as a market access condition. Oceana’s full report provides a breakdown of its investigation.
As Americans seek to make healthier choices, seafood is becoming more popular than ever before. In fact, U.S. consumers eat 50% more seafood now than they did 50 years ago and spend $80 billion annually on creatures from the sea, according to Oceana. Coupled with the increasing popularity is the growing problem of seafood fraud and mislabeled imports. Oceana’s study in 2013 performed DNA testing on seafood samples taken around the United States and found that nearly 33% of those samples were mislabeled.
FDA has made a significant investment in DNA sequencing to improve its ability to detect misrepresented seafood species in interstate commerce and from other countries. “The Agency has trained and equipped eight field laboratories across the country to perform DNA testing as a matter of course for suspected cases of misbranding and for illness outbreaks due to finfish seafood, where the product’s identity needs to be confirmed,” stated Steven M. Solomon, deputy associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at FDA, before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship in May. “FDA also trained analysts from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the National Marine Fisheries Service in its new DNA-based species identification methodology.”
With some of the most common seafood choices including white fish varieties like tilapia and catfish, DNA-based testing plays a critical role in detecting mislabeling of species. If you’re a knowledge seafood person and you get a whole fish, there’s a high likelihood you can identify it correctly,” says Steven Guterman, CEO of InstantLabs. “However, once that fish has been filleted—let’s call it a white fish—it’s almost impossible for anyone to visually correctly identify that fish. That’s where the DNA testing comes into play.”
InstantLabs offers a series of DNA-based seafood tests for species identification. Last week the company announced a partnership with FDA to co-develop and commercialize a new Ictalurid catfish species identification test that enables much faster sequencing of samples and at a lower cost. “I think everyone is recognizing that the current method industry uses for validation, which is to take a sample and send it out to a lab for sequencing, just takes too long,” says Guterman. There is a typical time lag of about one to two weeks from taking a sample to getting a result.
The Hunter System is a real-time PCR instrument that delivers results in a much shorter period of time. “Switching from a sequencing test to a PCR test where you’re looking for a specific target DNA and getting results on site in two hours, or in a laboratory within a day, changes the way the industry operates,” says Guterman. “It enables better enforcement, and government regulators and suppliers can do validation in a way that’s not disruptive to their normal course of business.”
FDA and InstantLabs began talking about the technology about a year ago, as both have worked closely with the University of Guelph, according to Guterman. FDA was looking for a company that would be able to commercialize a test kit for U.S. catfish, and the new partnership is part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the agency. U.S. Farm Bill legislation states that only members of the Ictaluridae family can be legally marketed as catfish within the United States.
The FDA-InstantLabs CRADA collaboration will help ensure the integrity of labeling related to U.S. catfish. The Pangasiidae species, which hails from Southeast Asia, has been increasingly mislabeled as U.S. catfish. This is not only a concern from a cost standpoint but also a safety perspective, as FDA has detected toxins in catfish that come from Asia.
The length and complexity of the seafood supply chain has created an ideal environment for fueling the mislabeling of the world’s most highly traded food commodity. Considering 91% of all seafood consumed in the United States imported, the ethical and economic impact of seafood mislabeling is enormous. While increased demand is putting pressure on the seafood industry, federal agencies are laying the groundwork to aggressively attack the rampant mislabeling problem.
“Illegal unregulated and unreported fishing is a huge global phenomenon that distorts markets and skews estimates of fish abundance,” said Kimberly Warner, PhD, senior scientist at Oceana, during a recent webinar on food fraud. The goal is to achieve complete transparency and traceability, keeping the “who, what, when, where, and how” with the fish. “Right now when fish are landed, they are required in the United States to list the species, where it was caught, [and] how it was caught. But that information is not following seafood through the supply chain.”
Simply put, seafood fraud is as any illegal activity that misrepresents the seafood one buys. According to Oceana, this can include not disclosing the real name of the fish or its origin, not providing an accurate weight, adding water or breadcrumbs, not declaring the presence of additives, or selling “fresh” fish that was previously frozen.
There are several motivations behind seafood fraud, says Warner. Some businesses want to increase profits and avoid profits; others want to hide illegally caught seafood or engage in trading endangered or threatened species, or mask seafood hazards; and some companies are just ignorant to the requirements of seafood labeling.
The lack of reliable and trustworthy information poses a challenge to consumers who want to make informed decisions when purchasing seafood. While proactive consumers use guides such as “Seafood Watch”, a program offered by the by Monterey Bay Aquarium, in many cases they still do not have enough information to make a decision with complete confidence.
Supply Chain Traceability
Last month the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its final recommendations for creating a risk-based traceability program that tracks seafood from harvest to entry into U.S. commerce. The ambitious action plan seeks to tackle the following goals:
• Combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud at the international level
• Strengthen enforcement and enhance enforcement tools
• Create and expand partnerships with nonfederal entities to identify and eliminate seafood fraud and the sale of IUU seafood products in U.S. commerce
• Increase information available on seafood products through additional traceability requirements
Key dates on the plan’s timeline include identifying the minimum types of information and operational standards by June 30, which will be followed by a 30-day comment period; engaging the public on principles used to define “at risk” species by July and releasing final principles and “at risk” species by October 2015; and building international capacity to manage fisheries and eliminate IUU fishing, with an interagency working group developing an action plan by April 2016.
Bait & Switch: Quick Stats Behind Seafood Mislabeling
• Red snapper is the most commonly mislabeled fish (up to 28 species were found to be substituted, a large amount being tilapia)
Statistics generated from studies conducted by Oceana in which the organization gathered seafood samples nationwide.
How can consumers protect themselves?
Warner’s advice: Ask the folks behind the seafood counter where they purchase their seafood from and whether it is farmed or fresh. If you can, buy the whole fish, because it’s harder to disguise when whole. And finally, if the price is too good to be true, it probably is. “Expect to pay more for wildly caught, responsibly fished seafood,” she said.
|Related content: InstantLabs Launches DNA-based Atlantic and Coho Salmon SpeciesID Test Kits to Combat Seafood Mislabeling|