Inexpensive DNA testing has uncovered widespread deception in the labelling of meat and fish for humans and their pets
In 2011, when The Boston Globe published the results of its five-month investigation into the mislabelling of seafood in supermarkets and restaurants in Massachusetts, consumers were disturbed. There was a good chance, they learned, that the expensive, locally caught flounder or red snapper they ordered was actually a much-cheaper fish — often farmed and shipped thousands of miles.
In all, the newspaper found that almost half of the 183 samples it collected from 134 sources were misnamed. A follow-up investigation last year showed not much has changed; other studies have shown mislabelling is widespread across North America.
The issue has come under scrutiny as a result of groundbreaking Canadian research funded by Genome Canada. More than 10 years ago, scientists at the University of Guelph, led by Dr. Paul Hebert, proposed a revolutionary new system of species identification. With less than a milligram of tissue, the researchers have shown, it is possible to isolate, replicate, and sequence a short section of DNA from a standardized area in all animals’ genomes. Comparing the resulting “barcode” to their rapidly expanding DNA reference library quickly and inexpensively pinpoints the species.
From its base at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario — the scientific hub of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project — Dr. Hebert’s team did the DNA analysis for The Boston Globe. It also worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to institute barcode-based testing as part of the American federal inspection and enforcement program.
Dr. Hebert says more transparency is needed in the Canadian marketplace, as well. Recent DNA barcode testing by his team found, among other things, ground chicken sold as turkey, steak and hamburgers from zebu cattle not raised in Canada, and pet food made of mackerel that contained not a trace of the salmon and sardines listed on its label.
The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project, led by Canadian geneticist Dr. Paul Hebert, is providing tools for food traceability and safety. A Canadian seafood importer as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are using this technology to prevent mislabelling in the marketplace, increasing consumer safety and protecting them against fraud.