A new, portable test aimed at combatting seafood mislabeling has hit the market, based on the technology honed at the University of Guelph.

The InstantID Atlantic Blue Crab DNA verification test was developed in partnership with researchers at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). BIO is the home of DNA barcoding, using short, standardized gene sequences to identify species.

“This technology will help safeguard against existing supply chain vulnerabilities, protecting both businesses and consumers from food fraud,” said Robert Hanner, a professor at BIO and in the Department of Integrative Biology.

“What is novel about this is that it puts an on-site assay in the hands of industrial users.”

Hanner worked on the project with Amanda Naaum, a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at Guelph.

Naaum completed her PhD at U of G in 2014 and won the Forster Medal, the University’s top convocation award for graduate students. She also received an inaugural commercialization fellowship in 2013 to develop probes for the portable device. This allows for DNA verification of seafood species in real time; the authenticity of a sample of crab meat can be validated in two hours

“This was a great opportunity for me to explore the pathway from university research to marketable product,” Naaum said.

“The work is very applied, it’s easy to see the relevance and it’s interesting to be developing a technology for use in the food industry.”

She says the new tool might be used by government regulators in the United States and Canada, but its primary users will be food processors, wholesalers and distributers who want to verify their products and protect their brand image.

“We know misrepresentation is happening in the seafood industry, but where it happens in the global supply chain has not been identified; it could happen at so many places.”

The largest-ever market study on seafood fraud — conducted in 2013 with the testing done at BIO — found that 33 per cent of fish sold in grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars is mislabelled.

The results resemble those in a 2008 study by Hanner that found upwards of 25 per cent of fish were mislabelled, and the majority were sold as species of a higher market value.

Hanner and Naaum also worked together on a study involving high school students in Ontario that demonstrated ongoing problems with seafood fraud. That research, scheduled to be published soon, was done in collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, a national science outreach organization.

“DNA Barcoding has ‘arrived’ as a standard method for food ingredient authentication,” said Hanner. He co-ordinates the Fish Barcode of Life campaign, an international research collaboration that is building the barcode reference sequence libraries needed to identify the world’s fish species.

Already, regulatory agencies have used DNA barcoding to identify other mislabelled foods, including natural health products.

In addition to identifying known species, scientists have used DNA barcoding to discover hundreds of overlooked species of animals, plants and even marine algae.

The Blue Crab test is the first in a series of seafood species identification tests planned by InstantLabs, a U.S. diagnostic device company. These tests will make use of DNA barcode sequences, but allow species-specific testing to be done on-site.

Referring to the polymerase chain reaction, which allows scientist to rapidly make many copies of a DNA sequence, Steven Guterman, InstantLabs chief executive officer, said: “With the rise of seafood fraud, InstantLabs wants to bring the power of real-time PCR to an important industry that has few options for quickly verifying accuracy in labelling.”