Bringing the analysis to the sample: Progenesis QI helps beat food fraud

I recently watched a recorded webinar and was so impressed I decided to blog about it.

Addressing complex and critical food integrity issues using the latest analytical technologies

Prof. Chris Elliott Prof Chris Elliott
Professor of Food Safety and Director of the Institute for Global Food Security
Queen’s University Belfast
Dr. Sara Stead Dr. Sara Stead
Senior Strategic Collaborations Manager, Food & Environmental
Waters Corporation

The bad news

The food supply system is incredibly complex, sustaining 6 billion people with ingredients and processed foods.  The problem arises when things go wrong, whether accidentally or deliberately; there can be catastrophic consequences. The melamine milk scandal in China resulted in 54,000 babies being hospitalised, and 6 dying. How prevalent is food fraud?  The answer is we don’t know, it has been estimated at 40 billion U$D.  Not only is food fraud dangerous, it erodes the trust between the consumers and businesses.  Sometimes companies unwittingly buy fraudulent products from the supplier, damaging their reputations, in many cases to the point of the company’s collapse.

Chris went on to talk about the red meat supply, which is hugely complicated, having multiple points of vulnerability.  He mentioned how sub-contracting within the food supply chain has made it possible to substitute far cheaper horse meat for beef; the complexity of the sub-contracting has made finding the culprits difficult.

He talked about herbs and spices, mentioning the cumin scandal, whereby similarly coloured peanut shells are deliberately substituted to bulk out the cumin.  This act is particularly malicious because of peanut allergies potentially leading to fatalities.  ‘Pure’ oregano has been found to contain leaves of citrus, olive and myrtle.


‘Pure’ oregano has been found to contain leaves of citrus, olive and myrtle

The good news

The UK Government asked Chris to run an enquiry which lead to the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks – Final Report.  His review mentions the ‘Eight Pillars of Food Integrity’.  I like the first pillar, ‘Always put the consumer first’.  The fourth pillar is where Progenesis QI comes in: ‘Laboratory Testing’.

As part of ‘Laboratory testing’, Chris has been working with Dr Sara Stead of Waters at producing ‘fingerprints’ for different foods, using metabolomic profiling and the very simple-to-operate Rapid Evaporative Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (“REIMS”) research system, incorporating the iKnife.  Progenesis QI is used to analyse the data produced.  Its ‘Quantify then Identify’ workflow makes it a natural choice for finding unknown changes in complex samples.  Sara explained how much promise this new technology shows; a huge advantage is that there are results in seconds and no sample preparation is needed.  It’s a revolutionary approach, ‘bringing the analysis to the sample’.  So long as your sample has conductivity, you can analysis it.

Sara explained how high levels of fraud have been found in the fish industry, for example, tuna being substituted by escolar, which can cause steatorrhea. She talked about substitutions causing problems for people with seafood allergies and her work on coffee, Belgian butter, herbs and spices and the botanical origin of honey.

Which species of fish are present?

Figure 1: Which species of fish are present?

The group are building models to help identify geographical origins and seasonal variation.  All this from a test that takes seconds.  Amazing!

PCA analysis showing separation of different fish species by metabolic profiling

Figure 2: PCA analysis showing separation of different fish species by metabolic profiling

The future for food fraud testing lies in ‘holistic profiling’, being able to detect the unexpected and verify unique product markers.  Chris still thinks that more vigilance in the food industry is needed and there is plenty more work to do.  He revealed that product complexity makes detection more difficult and believes the best place to start testing is the raw ingredients.

He is using this game-changing, sensitive technology alongside other techniques.  The speed and simplicity of the workflow, make it a very attractive option when compared to, for example, DNA testing which is prohibitively costly and complex.  One more piece of good news is that once the models are built, the analysis is highly reproducible between laboratory sites.

Watching this webinar really inspired me! I’m truly impressed by the boldness of this technological approach; I came away thinking “This revolutionary technology really could change the world!”

As you will see in the webinar Progenesis QI is the software that is being used to do comparative profiling of food varieties, if you’d like to use Progenesis to profile your own data, download today.