Tag Archives: seafood

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

Pretty Fishy

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Fish
Records involving fraud can be found in the Food Fraud Database. Image credit: Susanne Kuehne

Hundreds of seafood samples from U.S. grocery stores, seafood markets and restaurants were analyzed in 2018, and a large rate of mislabeling was found. Cheaper catch, for example, gets mislabeled as higher value fish, especially sea bass, snapper or halibut. Other frauds include illegally caught fish or seafood mislabeled as sustainable, covering up harmful environmental practices. In spite of federal government policy measures already in place, many gaps that allow seafood fraud to largely go undetected still exist.

Resource

  1. O., Warner, K., Roberts, W., Mustain, P., Lowell, B., & Swain, M. (2019, March 11). Casting a Wider Net: More Action Needed to Stop Seafood Fraud in the United States. https://doi.org/10.31230/osf.io/sbm8h
Blockchain

Promise of Blockchain Could Help Seafood Traceability, Unique Challenges Remain

By Maria Fontanazza
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Blockchain

As our conversation about the potential of blockchain continues at Food Safety Tech, we sat down with Thomas Burke, food traceability and safety scientist, Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) at the Institute of Food Technologists, to discuss how ready the seafood industry is in the adoption of blockchain, more specifically as it relates to traceability.

Food Safety Tech: What are the current major issues in seafood traceability?
Thomas Burke: Some of the challenges are diversity in product, diversity in regulatory compliance, a hyper-globalized supply chain and variable technology adoption.

I always like to distinguish seafood traceability from other major food commodities for several different reasons. When thinking about traceability and devising traceability systems, you want to think about use cases. For most food commodities, food safety is usually top of mind; there’s also a regulatory compliance component. Seafood still has food safety as a high priority, but there are also issues with illegal and unreported fishing and fraudulent issues in the supply chain. When you’re thinking about devising a traceability system, you also have to consider different key data elements. For instance, in food safety, while location is important, the location is only really important for tracing back in the event of recalling product. In seafood traceability you’re looking at racing back to ascertain if it was caught in the right place with the right method at the right time. With this as context, you also want to think about the technological challenges and food operations wise such as the diversity of commodities in seafood—there’s diversity in species way more so than in poultry or produce. You also have very different geographic locations, different harvest methods (i.e., farmed, wild); because of the diversity of harvesting practices, there are other considerations to think about. There are some traceability service providers that rely on a constant internet connection, and that’s obviously not possible if you’re fishing on the high seas. You might have equipment for data collections that works really well in the field or in the food manufacturing environment, but it may not work under the harsh conditions of a boat or in aquaculture. So we end up seeing a great diversity of technological adoption. Especially further upstream when thinking about other small-scale fishers and smaller processors—they generally only do traceability for regulatory compliance, because they just don’t have the capital to invest in technologically sophisticated data collection management. And sometimes it’s not necessary for what they’re trying to achieve. So, we still see a lot of paper records, basic spreadsheet data management, and then it gets more complicated as you go down the supply chain. Larger processors and retailers will have more dedicated traceability systems.

FST: Where do you see blockchain entering the traceability process and what other technologies should be used in conjunction with blockchain?

Thomas Burke will present, “Blockchain won’t solve the food traceability challenge… but Interoperability and Data Standards will” at the 2019 Food Safety Supply Chain Conference | May 29 –30  Burke: One of the things that we’ve found in our work at the Global Food Traceability Center and with the global dialogue on seafood traceability [regarding] blockchain is that there’s a lot of interest and hype around the application itself, which helps draw in solution providers and developers that are interested in applying a new technology to a new use case.

Blockchain is a data sharing platform. So the technologies that it’s comparing itself to are FTP (file transfer protocol) and transferring data through an EDI (electronic data interchange). This is a new way of sharing data between supply chain partners that has some unique capabilities, some of which are very advantageous for seafood.

When I was talking earlier about how there is variable adoption of technologies (i.e., small harvesters or producers that use paper records or use minimal digital records), blockchain has the advantage that data hosting is shared and decentralized across the notes of the network. What that means is that a small producer doesn’t have to set up a dedicated server infrastructure in order to communicate with their supply chain partners, whereas that’s more of the case with EDI; even with FTP you’ll still have to set up some kind of formal relationship with your servers. What’s nice about blockchain is that in order to host information on that network, you just pay a small amount of the currency that the blockchain runs on. It’s a little bit different if you have a private or consortium blockchain, but the idea is with the open blockchain applications is that you only pay on a per transaction basis (data upload basis). The larger the network is, the cheaper that is to do. So over the month, it’s a lower cost for participants for hosting the shared ledger of updates.

There are also some other advantages: It’s immutable; once it’s on the blockchain it’s very difficult to corrupt that data. There are other components to the problem of data collection and the transportation of data, along with the product along the supply chain. You still need certain legs of that stool such as a global identifier that identifies the product as it goes through the supply chain and gets incorporated into other products; you also need to collect the related data that’s necessary to make your use case. There’s a balance between the data collection and the identification [i.e., fishermen might not want to reveal their best location]. Those all need to be part of the picture, in addition to novel data-sharing platforms such as blockchain. A big part of what GFTC is trying to do in the seafood space is gather industry and work with them to develop standards and best practices to ensure the same data is being collected at each point and that data is able to be transported with the product in an interoperable way that takes into account the diversity of technological adoption along the supply chain.

FST: What level of blockchain adoption do you see in the seafood industry? How prepared is the industry, including retailers?

Burke: As far as adoption: It depends. There are a few different aspects that depend on whether companies will invest in a blockchain solution or not. It depends on what their current adoption is and their market. Where we’re seeing a lot of interest in blockchain being used as a component of data sharing for traceability is in more niche products that have more straightforward supply chains, and they’re using traceability as a market differentiator for their product. Right now, in order to invest in blockchain, you need to devote a significant amount of staff time or invest in a service provider to devise the blockchain scheme that you’re going for. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the implementation of blockchain. There are major players using blockchain in other types of food supply chains, but those are generally very vertically integrated companies that have a lot of resources—both IT resources and monetary resources to devote to this early experimental stage. And that’s where I would see it start first. If there’s success in those more limited trials, then maybe larger multinational companies might have interest in using it as a linkage between some of the information systems.

The biggest challenge with large multinational seafood companies is they have a lot of subsidiaries. And when they have subsidiaries, they might use different ERP systems; they’re looking at ways to transport the data into those disparate systems. And with seafood, as with most food commodities, it’s a fairly low margin industry. So most companies are going to be fairly conservative in investing in a new technology until it’s really being seen as a proven and achievably implementable software solution. Larger companies are still seeing more traditional cloud hosting such as EDI as a viable option for data sharing in food traceability. But blockchain is being seen in those niche areas and as the technology becomes more proven, we’ll probably see greater adoption. There’s just still a lot of skepticism in the industry, and that’s with any new technology.

I will say with other technologies in seafood traceability, I am seeing quite a bit of promise in AI [artificial intelligence] data analytics and image processing technologies just because it’s very difficult to identify products, especially early up in the supply chain. Some of these new technologies in data processing are going to help streamline data collection and be able to process it into those key data elements that you’re looking for to achieve those traceability use cases. There’s been so much development of facial recognition technology in humans that similar algorithms could be used in labeling fish. Those are some of the other promising technologies. There are some [uses of] IoT devices and RFID but those still remain to be seen—they have implementation issues, because there are quite a few environmental interferences on water or in humidity-rich environments, especially when you’re thinking about radio frequency resistance/interference.

In seafood right now, most of the blockchain-oriented applications are in line with NGOs that are experimenting with the use of blockchain as a traceability tool—and those tend to be high-end products like tuna or crab using blockchain in limited use cases. It’s still very much in the piloting and early implementation.

FST: What are the top three advantages to using blockchain for seafood traceability?

Burke: 1. Immutability. Once you put transactions onto the blockchain, because of the way the architecture is set up, it’s really difficult to alter that record. Other data sharing platforms don’t have the advantage of a singular record.
2. Decentralization. Everyone has access to the same leger that can be shared in real time across a global supply chain. Most of the other data sharing platforms are emphasized in one-to-one communication, whereas blockchain is many-to-many.
3. Flexibility and interest from the development community. There’s a lot of creativity associated with blockchain applications right now. There are a lot of developers coming up with interesting ideas of how to maximize the architecture to work for food traceability applications. Because it has an economic structure where you are using tokens that are powering the data processing, you can potentially do interesting things with incentivizing inputting data into a traceability system and monetizing it. We’re exploring that in the global dialogue—looking to see how you can tie the value of traceability data upstream, because that will help incentivize the entire ecosystem. There have been limited trials with startups that have been looking at incentivizing data collection through blockchain.

FST: Where do you see blockchain headed in five years?
Burke: I don’t see the actual architectural idea of blockchain idea going away. It’s a fairly brilliant way of ensuring that valuable data isn’t double counted or deleted. It helps reduce some risk.

The next five years will depend on what the end retailers end up adopting. In western markets, more specifically North America, the retailers have a lot of leverage in what standards and best practices are kept and carried through. So it will depend a lot on those large end retailers and how comfortable they are in adopting blockchain, and the decisions that they make behind blockchain providers.

The largest seafood markets are China and Japan, so [adoption] more depends on what those retailers/customer bases are demanding versus what happens in North America just because the demand is so much stronger there. That will also drive the development of blockchain interfaces and will influence the adoption among smaller scale fishers, which is more of the tendency in East Asia. It’s a very open question. I think it will be influenced by decisions that governments make in East Asia regarding blockchain.

I would emphasize that the success of seafood traceability and food traceability in general will be very dependent on standards, and the development of commonly understood and accepted practices, and the way those data standards are collected. So you can have a robust blockchain platform, but if every supply chain partner doesn’t agree to collect the same data and identify it in a similar way that is interoperable, it still won’t work—even if you have the most advanced technology. There’s a human process of agreeing upon the same way that traceability data is gathered. Interoperability and standards are key, in addition to the new technologies.

Seafood Analytics CQR

Handheld Reader Detects Freshness of Seafood

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Seafood Analytics CQR
Seafood Analytics CQR
The CQR device from Seafood Analytics measures the freshness and quality of seafood.

How fresh is “fresh”? This is a question that is asked throughout the supply chain as it pertains to seafood. Determining the quality and freshness of seafood has long been an issue in the industry. A handheld screening and data collection device developed by Seafood Analytics uses electrical currents to generate the cellular quality of seafood products.

The CQR device measures how much the cells inside a fish species change over time. Real-time measurements can be taken in different conditions, from catch to freezing, or from catch to consumption. The device can be used throughout the supply chain, including by grocery chains, foodservice distributors, and harvesters and processors. By enabling users to evaluate the quality and freshness of seafood, the CQR device also helps reduce shrink loss, manage inventory, determine inbound supplier selection and set pricing based on quality.

A food company’s supply chain can be the weakest link in their food safety program.  Learn more about how to protect your supply chain at the Food Safety Supply Chain conference | June 5–6, 2017 | Rockville, MDSeafood Analytics is currently developing a Certified Quality Seafood certification that would allow suppliers to promote their seafood. Seafood buyers would be able to locate suppliers that sell high quality seafood that has been measured by the CQR device, and seafood sellers would be able to certify their products through this certification program.

Mislabeled Salmon

Rapid Salmon ID Test the Latest in Fraud Prevention

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Mislabeled Salmon

Two rapid test kits have been launched for the identification of salmon species: Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka). The tool kits were developed in collaboration with the University of Guelph and allow distributors, food processors and government regulators to positively identify the salmon species in less than two hours. 

Recent studies have revealed that a significant amount of the salmon sold in the United States is mislabeled.

The test kits are used in conjunction with a portable, real-time PCR system that provides DNA detection. The tools are part of the Instant ID Species product line from InstantLabs, which include seafood identification tests for Atlantic (Salmo salar) and Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch as well as Atlantic Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus) and U.S. Catfish (Ictalurus species).

Retail Food Safety Forum

Untangling the Net of Seafood Fraud

By Maria Fontanazza
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Achieving complete traceability is a must to combating seafood fraud. How is industry getting there?

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)
•    74% of fish are mislabeled in sushi venues
•    38% of restaurants mislabel seafood
•    30% of shrimp samples misrepresented
•    Chesapeake Blue Crab cakes: out of 90 sampled, 38% mislabeled, with 44% coming from the Indo-Pacific region

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

InstantLabs Launches DNA-based Atlantic and Coho Salmon SpeciesID Test Kits to Combat Seafood Mislabeling

The company has broadened species identification product line created in partnership with University of Guelph and plans to release additional test kits during the year.

InstantLabs announced today the expansion of its SpeciesID product line by offering DNA-based tests for Atlantic and Coho salmon. InstantLabs SpeciesID™ tests provide accurate DNA verification in under two hours.

The launch of the salmon test kits highlights InstantLabs’ efforts to meet market demand by expanding the affordable, simple-to-use InstantID™ product line. The company already offers kits to identify Atlantic Blue Crab, pork and horse meat. The InstantLabs’ system gives food wholesalers, processors and inspectors a fast and reliable option for product tests.

The two new products were created in partnership with the University of Guelph, an international leader in agricultural and food science. The InstantID test kits for Atlantic (Salmo salar) and Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) are the first of four salmon assays planned for release during 2015. InstantLabs will launch InstantID™ for Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) salmon later this year.

Expanding its presence in the high-demand seafood market, the Baltimore-based manufacturer of the Hunter® system expects to also release InstantID™ kits for snapper, catfish, grouper, and tilapia.

“Producers, wholesalers and government entities needs robust tools to combat seafood fraud,” said Steven Guterman, chief executive officer of InstantLabs. “InstantLabs’ real-time PCR testing systems and reagent kits can become an integral part in a testing program to verify labeling accuracy.”

InstantLabs’ Hunter® Real-Time PCR instrument combines accuracy, speed, and ease-of-operation into a compact portable system. The Hunter system is designed for use at points-of-need to detect and analyze a wide variety of food samples by targeting DNA. Results delivered quickly allow seamless integration into food industry firms’ processes and facilities.

Dr. Robert Hanner, Ph. D., has directed the University of Guelph’s research in conjunction with InstantLabs. “This collaboration has been essential in commercializing DNA-based food authentication tests for the seafood industry,” said Dr. Hanner, associate professor at the Center of Biodiversity Genomics. “This technology will help safeguard against existing supply chain vulnerabilities, protecting both businesses and consumers from food fraud.”

InstantLabs identification tests are designed for use on the Hunter, a real-time PCR system developed by the company, and are also available for use with other PCR instruments.

Seafood industry reports continue to highlight concerns about fraud, species substitution and consumer preferences to use sustainable fish stocks. Approximately one-third of all fish sold in the U.S. was mislabeled, reported a recent survey from Oceana. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration identifies a range of lower valued fish regularly substituted for 20 higher-priced species. InstantLabs will provide critical tool sets needed by the industry to ensure the integrity of the supply chain.

ABOUT INSTANTLABS:

InstantLabs, a molecular diagnostic device company, developed and markets the Hunter® Accelerated-PCR system, a fully-integrated, easy-to-use, portable and affordable real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) platform for rapid, accurate pathogen detection. InstantLabs Medical Diagnostics Corp., the legal entity, offers the Hunter® system for use with several food-borne pathogen test kits for the global food industry. The Hunter® system is especially well suited for use at points-of-care and points-of-need to detect and analyze a wide variety of common and problematic pathogens. InstantLabs’ growing worldwide customer base includes some of the world’s leading food companies. InstantLabs is also developing products for additional markets, including medical diagnostics where gold-standard accuracy, combined with Ease-of-use and rapid results, are critical. Founded in 2008, InstantLabs is located in Baltimore, MD. For more information please visit www.instantlabs.com.

ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH:

Acknowledged as one of the leading public research universities, the University has 39 Canada Research chairs in natural sciences, energy, health services and social sciences. With a commitment to student learning and innovative research, University leaders are dedicated to cultivating the essentials for our quality of life – water, food, environment, animal and human health, community, commerce, culture and learning. The University community also shares a profound sense of social responsibility, an obligation to address global issues and a concern for international development. Learn more at www.uoguelph.ca.

Additional resources on seafood fraud:

Lessons Learned from the Implementation of Seafood HACCP for FSMA

By Tim Hansen
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While HACCP has been highly successful and truly promoted seafood safety and consumer confidence in these products, there are several useful lessons that may make your transition to FSMA compliance easier.

One of the tenets of FSMA is the requirement for preventive systems (AKA HACCP) for all food groups regulated by FDA. Up to the time of passage of FSMA, FDA wanted preventive systems only for seafood, fruit and vegetable juices and low-acid canned foods.

Since the requirement for preventive controls is about to be extended to all foods regulated by FDA, it may be instructive for affected food firms to consider some of the common problems experienced by the seafood industry during the implementation of HACCP. This regulation has been highly successful and truly promoted seafood safety and consumer confidence in these products. There are several useful lessons that may make your transition to compliance easier.

1. Unnecessary CCPs. Implementation of the Seafood HACCP regulation came with a great deal of uncertainty for the industry. Their response was to include a hazard as a CCP even when it did not meet the FDA “reasonably likely to occur” standard. This resulted in some cases overly complicated HACCP plans. Firms can avoid this problem through rigorous hazard analysis and following agency guidance for the commodity being processed.

2. Mixing sanitation controls with HACCP controls. The Seafood HACCP Regulation requires that certain aspects of sanitation be properly controlled, monitored and documented through records. While it is feasible to include these controls within the HACCP plan it is much simpler keep sanitation controls separate from HACCP controls. A sanitation SOP is highly recommended that show how sanitation is controlled, monitored and recorded.

3. Monitoring need to be available in their original form in an organized fashion. Inadequate or poorly organized monitoring records were a big problem. Ideally, records should not be rewritten unless absolutely necessary. Rewritten records are a red flag to FDA investigators. If records are missing do not falsify information to fill the gaps. This could be the basis for a severe regulatory action. It is much better to perform a verification review and corrective action that is available to the investigator.

4. If a new product is introduced to your processing operation the HACCP plan should be amended immediately. Do not wait until a convenient time as a regulator could show up at any time. Also, do not assume that the hazard analysis and HACCP plan for a similar product will be the same. Either can result in a finding of failure to have a HACCP plan. You should start at the beginning with a proper hazard analysis and develop the plan for that product in accordance with the hazards you identify.

5. Scientific studies used to establish a critical limit for a CCP should be readily available to the investigator. For example, a study to show the necessary heat penetration time-temperature parameters of a cooked product to achieve sufficient bacterial kill or the proper mix of salt, water and exposure time to achieve a proper level of water phase salts in a cold smoked fish products are important information for the investigator to evaluate whether the critical limit of a CCP is adequate to control the hazard.

6. Generic HACCP plans should not be used. In the past some operations adopted a generic HACCP plan to cover their processing without performing a hazard analysis. This often resulted in hazards being missed and a faulty plan. FDA expects that each firm will conduct a hazard analysis. Not doing so could result in a serious charge.

This article originally appeared in EAS-e-News, March 2015 edition. 

 

Sangita Viswanathan, Former Editor-in-Chief, FoodSafetyTech

Is that Red Snapper on your Plate Really a Red Snapper?

By Sangita Viswanathan
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Sangita Viswanathan, Former Editor-in-Chief, FoodSafetyTech

Over the past few years, several consumer and news organizations have researched and tested seafood available in supermarkets and restaurants. The findings:

  • Some 35 percent of seafood samples in the U.S. were found mislabeled; 
  • Of the fish that were most commonly mislabeled, 
  • Red Snapper topped the list (at 86 percent being mislabeled);  
  • Nearly 16 percent of grouper was mislabeled; 
  • In one out of five cases, Atlantic or farmed salmon was substituted for wild or King salmon; and
  • “White tuna” was mislabeled 100 percent of the time. 

A more recent investigation into fish labeling fraud carried out in Europe revealed that 32 percent of seafood in Italy, 30 percent of all hake in Spain and 19 percent of cod in Ireland were mislabeled. Repeated studies have shown that these results are not one-off, but seafood fraud is consistent and not showing signs of any improvement.

E. Pearce Smith, Laboratory manager, GeneScan, at Eurofins talks about the challenges in testing seafood authenticity. There are a couple of issues with regards to seafood fraud, Smith says: “From an economic standpoint, you could be buying a cheaper fish (for instance a breaded tilapia fillet instead of a breaded grouper fillet) for more money. Also, from a quality point of view, you lose out.”

More importantly, Smith adds, from a food safety perspective, if you are unknowingly processing a wild grouper sandwich, you are not considering the right safety, microbiological and decomposition markers for the wild fish. Or if it is a farmed tilapia product, you are not looking at prohibited veterinary drugs in farmed fish.

The horsemeat scandal that rocked large regions of Europe in 2013 was the basis for this focus, Smith says. “With horsemeat being sold as beef, producers were not testing their beef products for bute or phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory used by vets mainly to treat pain and fever in horses.”

When testing is an art as well as a science

So far, seafood species authentication depended on tests that were developed many years ago. FDA published a protein method known as isoelectric focusing, in which you take a piece of a tissue, digest it into a slurry and run it out into a gel. By comparing the banding pattern to known references, you can conclude what kind of fish it is. The problem with this technique, Smith says, is that it is often inconclusive, or at least open to interpretation in many cases.

So, about three years ago, FDA decided to abandon this 1950s technology for a more modern technology – DNA barcoding.  So now, instead of using a protein pattern, the test involves isolating the DNA and amplifying a specific section of it for analysis. 

“In a relatively short sequence, of about 700 base pairs, it’s very easy to distinguish one species of fish from another,” Smith says, adding that now food companies want to drive the switch from the protein testing to the DNA method.  Testing for the protein requires a lot more hands-on time and testing one sample can take several hours, Smith explains. “With the DNA method, you can automate the testing to a much higher degree to handle hundreds of sample a day. And with the cost of sequencing dropping, such testing is no longer cost-prohibitive,” he adds.

Robust methodology

The new methodology is robust because DNA is a very stable molecule, according to Smith. “You can test raw or cooked fish with this method, while the protein test was not as good at spanning the pre- to post-processed product. You can also test a finished product such as a frozen fish dinner.”

What are the limitations? Smith lists a few examples: Testing a food product that could have multiple types of fish, such as a fish cake or Surimi, which are ground up into a paste, and could have multiple seafood products in them. Canned tuna is not suitable for testing, because the high pressure process involved is very destructive and you may not be able to get a nice clean read of the DNA. FDA has identified about 150 unique species as targets for substitution, or of high commercial value at risk of being substituted for monetary gains.

“The samples that we get from food producers usually turn out to be what we expect them to be, but sometimes, they don’t. When we get samples from consumer groups, about 30 percent are mislabeled. Also, variations in regional names for that particular fish also contribute to confusion and mislabeling,” Smith explains.

FDA is now publishing the reference sequences for the different species of fish to make identification quicker and easier. Earlier people had to rely on private databases and some of these, while good, weren’t easily accessible. 

Smith sees a lot of demand for testing species such as salmon (differentiating pink salmon Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, Chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, or Coho salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch); and red snapper (which faces high demand but is low in supply, and is commonly substituted with other fish of the same size or color). He says that the importance for this testing is growing increasingly as companies are importing seafood product, and it is critical that the species be correctly identified on the packaging. Imports are the source of as much as 90 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S., and only about 2 percent of those products are inspected, he adds.