The food safety watchdog has developed a process that allows it to identify the entire DNA content of a food. It says the tool will help it tackle food fraud and the mislabelling of products.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) says it has worked with commercial laboratory Identigen to adapt new DNA sequencing technology so that it can be used as a tool for scanning the ingredients in food.
Using the process, an analysis of 45 plant-based foods and food supplements from health food shops and supermarkets identified 14 food products of interest that may contain undeclared plant species.
Of these, one was confirmed to contain significant levels of undeclared mustard — a food allergenic ingredient that must be declared in all foods under EU and Irish food law.
An oregano product 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.
Pat O’Mahony, FSAI chief specialist, said the process was two years in development and will provide a non-targeted analysis of what exactly is in a food. Until now, products were screened for specific ingredients.
“If you remember when we looked at the horsemeat incidents, we went looking at beef products to find horse meat,” said Mr O’Mahony.
“In this case we just went for plant-based products and we asked the lab to tell us every plant species that they could find in there.
“So the idea is to look at the list of ingredients and if plants appear in there that shouldn’t be there, then we investigate further.”
Mr O’Mahony said the process will prove useful in the screening of processed foods.
“If you think of a steak, it’s hard to disguise anything in a steak, but if you look at a lot of the processed foods on the market it’s kind of difficult, other than the list of ingredients, to tell what’s in there,” Mr O’Mahony told RTÉ’s News at One. “So we now can go in there and look without any required pre-knowledge and see exactly what’s in there.
“That’s the beauty of it, we don’t need any prior information to go and look at food samples.
“We’re presuming the majority will be fine but we know from even though the 45 that we looked at, three of them come out with undeclared ingredients so we know we’re going to find stuff that shouldn’t be in those foods.”
Mr O’Mahony said that, until now, it has been hard to measure how big a problem food fraud poses because previous screening required a targeted ingredient based on a suspicion.
“We don’t really know yet because we haven’t really been able to look unless we have some information or suspicion,” he said. “In the case of horsemeat we had some suspicion but we had no good reason to go looking.
“Now we don’t need that reason, or we don’t need the suspicion we can just go and take a tranche of plant-based foods or meats and see what exactly is in there. If nothing untoward pops out then that’s fine, but if it does then we go and look more in detail and I think once we start that process I think we will begin to open a few more doors that we didn’t think were a problem.”