When one thinks of food fraud, it’s likely the Horsemeat Scandal of 2013 comes to mind, when horsemeat was identified in prepared frozen and meat products that were said to contain beef.
“That was a huge turning point in consumer confidence,” recalled researcher Elisa Jiménez from Spain’s technological centre AZTI. “I think at that point, companies were not aware of what they would lose once consumer trust was hit.”
Jiménez is heading up an EIT Food-funded food project called EthiChain, that if around back in 2013, would have been ‘extremely useful’ in detecting the presence of horsemeat in processed meat products, she said.
With support from EIT Food, technology companies ART21 from Lithuania and SwissDeCode from Switzerland, as well as research centres AZTI from Spain, Technion from Israel, and Italy’s University of Bologna, EthiChain is developing a fast and portable method of identifying food fraud at species level.
Combatting cross-contamination and mislabelling
“The idea was to provide food companies, retailers, and food control laboratories with portable, rapid DNA analysis systems for authenticity verification of [processed] products,” Jiménez told FoodNavigator.
EthiChain’s overall aim is to improve the transparency and integrity of today’s food system. The initiative is focusing on cross-contamination events and mislabelling issues in processed foods with ethical or religious claims.
Specifically, the project is centring its attention around vegan, Halal, and Kosher claims. “As we know, Kosher and Halal food products have strict [rules]. They must be produced in a very specific way. DNA testing can help verify the ingredients at species level,” Jiménez explained.
For vegan claims, EthiChain is testing processed foods, such as plant-based sausages or meatballs, as well as meat-free cold meats. Stuffed pastas and lasagnes are also being put under the microscope.
“The obtained results would be digitally linked to the company’s traceability system by means of a specifically developed app, therefore contributing to enhanced transparency in the food supply chain,” the project lead continued.
EthiChain is a year-long project, during which the researchers are developing three independent solutions: one to detect animal DNA in vegan products, another to detect pork in Halal products, and a third to detect horse or donkey, as well as pork DNA, in Kosher products.
The technology is founded on isothermal amplification, which sets itself apart in the market, Jiménez revealed.
“In general, companies are employing real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technology [to test for DNA in food]. However, it requires much larger equipment, and the technicians who work with these systems need to be relatively well-skilled.”
EthiChain’s proposal provides companies with testing capabilities that could be used by ‘anybody in the company, with minimal two-hours of training’. “That is a big difference, because you don’t need to hire a highly skilled person,” she elaborated.
From a cost perspective, it also means businesses can avoid making significant investments in additional laboratory equipment. And the big advantage: time saving. “It is possible to obtain a result in half an hour…
“There would be a considerable reduction in both implantation and analysis costs,” Jiménez continued. “These systems minimise usage barriers and are suitable for implementation in routine analysis.”
Preparing for launch
The EthiChain project kicked off in May 2021. Currently in its last quarter, it has developed its analytical systems and is in the process of completing its digitisation system, which will allow for data management.
The plan is to market its technology by late 2023 or early 2024.
“Once the developed systems start the commercialisation stage, the idea is to find distribution chains across Europe,” said Jiménez. “Other geographical areas worldwide would be considered, [if] the business plan progresses adequately.”