Fighting Food Fraud

To intercept future food scandals in Asia and the world, innovations like blockchain and artificial intelligence could prevent fraud and reduce anxiety about what’s really on our plates.

Keeping contaminants under control

As various food products from ready-made meals to toppings and spices have entered the market, the types of contaminants have grown just as diverse, from physical objects like sand to chemicals like dyes to biological organisms like microbes. Besides adding or substituting components, adulteration can also mean removing essential ingredients that consumers would otherwise expect from their products, said Dr. Sangita Bansal, principal scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

To weed out any contamination, food products are subjected to intense quality control (QC) measures. However, Bansal noted that each product category often requires highly specific methods to ensure safety and authenticity.

For example, DNA barcoding has become a prominent tool to reveal the rising incidence of food fraud, where gene sequences in tissue samples are analyzed to distinguish between closely related species or detect microbial infiltration. In 2018, researchers used DNA barcoding to expose over 30 commercial brands in China that had mislabeled fish fillet products.

But because the method involves polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—a technique for making multiple copies of target gene segments—this approach relies on sophisticated laboratory equipment like thermal cyclers to perform the heat-sensitive reaction and gel electrophoresis to view the DNA bands.

Despite its versatile use cases, DNA barcoding racks up costs and requires highly trained personnel to extract DNA and carry out the PCR procedure. Otherwise, given the precise reagent requirements, a lack of mastery can lead to amplifying the wrong DNA segment and using up more resources to rerun the tests.

According to Bansal, a technique called loop- mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) forgoes the costly equipment and extensive reagent list that PCR needs. It copies the genes by repeating reactions at DNA regions with looping structures, after which researchers can add dyes to visualize the results with the naked eye.

“The reaction takes place at a constant temperature and observation can be done directly on the basis of turbidity, color development or fluorescence,” she explained. “LAMP requires less resources and is usable for on-site quality detection.”

Beyond barcodes, AI-powered food fingerprinting is another emerging technology in the QC space. Patented by Singapore-based food ingredient analysis company ProfilePrint, the innovation is a portable AI alternative to food grading, normally performed in-person by experts for products like artisan coffee beans, cocoa and tea leaves. These often come under scrutiny as they are widely consumed and prone to adulteration, with even the tiniest of changes altering the quality of premium- grade ingredients.

ProfilePrint’s software captures these ingredients’ chemical signatures, running AI algorithms to authenticate and predict qualities such as taste profiles. Besides helping source ingredients and ensuring their consistency, the technology could accelerate product development by recommending adjustments to product composition to produce the desired sensory profile.

By training the AI models under the guidance of professional graders, the company has developed an accessible platform to democratize food grading know- how and conveniently deliver QC results as a single digital fingerprint.

Food authentication is rapidly turning to resource- efficient non-destructive approaches like fingerprinting, which no longer needs physical samples to check food quality. Still, much of these novel technologies’ success will come from establishing grading standards like each molecule’s chemical spectrum.

“Specifications and reference standards are needed for each ingredient used and for the final food product,” said Bansal. “Testing should start from the source, but after dilution and mixing with other ingredients, traceability is also needed.”

Erinne Ong reports on basic scientific discoveries and impact-oriented applications, ranging from biomedicine to artificial intelligence. She graduated with a degree in Biology from De La Salle University, Philippines.

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