A Canadian research network is at the forefront of the fight against misleading food labelling such as the horse meat scandal in Europe and the sushi fraud in California.
The Canadian Barcode of Life Network (CBLN), which has a lab at University of Guelph, has the technology to identify the origin of any protein, even if it’s in a burger, powder or lotion. It works with a database of DNA — including both Canadian and international flora and fauna — developed at research institutions across the country over a 10-year period.
That means it has the potential to make the food system safer, by tracing any meat or fish product by its genetic code, according to Bob Hanner, associate director for the CBLN.
In a recent scandal in Europe, meatballs and ground beef ravioli were found to be made from horse meat, not beef. The CBLN checked Canadian hamburger patties and found there was not horse meat in the food supply.
Food mislabelling has the potential to shake consumer confidence, and can hurt retailers, he pointed out.
Hanner found one in four fish fillets were mislabelled in a study in Toronto supermarkets a few years ago – meaning consumers were paying a premium for snapper when they were getting tilapia and for Atlantic cod when they were getting white hake.
"It's only now coming into the field that we know just how pervasive this kind of fraud is, because we have this kind of tool we can use to detect it," Hanner said.
If meats and fish are sold as "Canadian" but aren’t, it can drive down prices and undermine local markets and fish management plans, he added. The CBLN can determine where food comes from with its genetic testing.
The technology has the potential to protect both consumers and food sellers, he said.
"Increasingly private companies are paying to have their supply chains tested because it`s quite often not the retailer involved in switching the product – they may be victims of food fraud too," Hanner said.
"But they`re the front line with the consumer so if they are the ones who are bearing the brunt of consumer angst over this kind of mislabelling, they obviously want to make sure that their suppliers are giving them legitimate products as well," he added.
With processed food and cosmetics, there is potential for determining what ingredients are being used as "fillers" without being properly labelled.
Hanner said the CBLN is developing a certification mark for food suppliers that could be used to reassure consumers that they are getting what they pay for.