Vancouver scientist lauded for catching food cheats

University of British Columbia PhD student Yaxi Hu is being awarded the Mitacs Award for developing a new way to test for food fraud and contamination.

UBC PhD student Yaxi Hu is being awarded the Mitacs Award for developing a test to detect food fraud

A common example of Canadian food fraud is mislabeled fish. A 2013 University of Guelph study found one-third of fish sold in grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars didn't match the label. (The Canadian Press)

In a world full of food fraud, the paprika-dusted wild salmon you ordered off the menu might not be exactly what ends up on your plate, a UBC researcher is warning.

A 2013 University of Guelph study found one-third of the fish sold in grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues is mislabeled.

In the same year scandal racked Europe after horsemeat was disguised as beef and sold in frozen meals across the continent.

More devastatingly, in 2008 Chinese infant formula was contaminated by plastics chemical melamine. At least six children died and nearly 300,000 people became ill.

Yaxi Hu, a PhD student in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, told CBC's The Early Edition food fraud is still a huge problem.

She pointed to a recent Europol-Interpol operation which confiscated over 11 million kilograms of fake food from 57 countries between November 2015 and February 2016.

"Canada is not really immune to the food fraud issue," she said. "Our government is for sure doing a very good job to avoid a safety issue. At the same time the amount of effort put on monitoring food authenticity is relatively small."

A cheaper, faster way of testing

Hu has developed a rapid method for detecting food fraud which uses nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Each chemical has a unique vibration kind of like a fingerprint, she explained.

Hu stored and recorded the "fingerprints" of unadulterated foods in a digital library. Then she tested new food samples and compared them with the original.

"If there is some extraordinary material present in food, the signal collected by the machine will change ... [and] we know that there's something going on," she said.

Food scientist Yaxi Hu says it is common to find contaminants like dyes in spices like paprika and chilli powder to make them appear brighter. (Ermis/Flickr)

In collaboration with the Peking University in China Hu developed a successful method to detect a contaminant in paprika, which is often made brighter by a potentially carcinogenic industrial dye called Sudan I.

Her test is faster and far less labour intensive than the methods currently favoured by the government and it can test for the presence of any kind of contaminant at the same time. 

"I see that this machine can be purchased by the government and even some food industries in the future to test their food easily," she said.

Testing at home?

Eventually, Hu said, she hopes to make the machine even more widely available — for individual consumers.

Yaxi Hu is a 24-year-old PhD student in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. She has successfully developed a method of detecting food contaminants. (Gail Bergman PR)

"In the future if some people are not trusting our government or food supply chain they probably want to test their food at home," she said.

She estimated such a machine would be affordable.

"I assume the cost will be in the same range as a pregnancy testing kit," she said.

For her work Hu is being awarded the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation in Ottawa tonight. She is one of six award winners nationally.

With files from The Early Edition


To hear the interview, click on the link labelled Vancouver scientist develops new method for detecting food fraud