EU-China Food Safety Project Ramps Up Fight Against Fraud

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15 Jun 2017 --- The Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast will lead one of the world’s largest food safety projects across Europe and China. The European Horizon 2020 program and Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) program have been awarded €10 million (US$11.2 million) towards an EU-China partnership to improve food safety and tackle food fraud.

The EU-China-Safe project will involve key players in the food industry, research organizations and Governments across two of the world’s largest trading areas. 

Food fraud manifests itself in many ways, from horse meat labeled and sold as beef like the scandal in Europe in 2013, to illicit oil which saw slaughterhouse waste and sewage used in cooking oil, known as the 2014 ‘gutter oil’ scandal in China.

EU-China-Safe will reduce food fraud and improve food safety through focusing on improving food legislation, food inspection and increasing access to information across both continents. 
 
State-of-the-art technologies including a virtual laboratory will create a unique space to share and demonstrate best practice. The use of innovative technologies will result in improved detection of adulteration of food products as well as increased traceability and transparency of global supply chains.

“We are delighted that The Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University will lead this important project, bringing together key stakeholders in the global food system across two of the world’s largest trading markets,” says Professor Elliott, Pro-Vice Chancellor at Queen’s and project co-ordinator.

Professor Yongning Wu, Chief Scientist from the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, co-ordinator of the Chinese efforts in the project, added: “The EU-China-Safe partnership between our two trading regions is of immense importance to help deliver safe and genuine food to all citizens.”

“Working together across China and the EU will enable us to identify where food fraud is happening, address the root causes and thereby enable us to improve food safety standards for all our citizens.” 

Reported instances of food fraud are on the increase and occur on a global scale, worth an estimated US$52 billion globally each year. Food fraud is a global issue demanding a global response. The increasingly complex global food supply network increases the risks of serious food borne illness. 

“This project will tackle these highly connected issues in a way that will serve to better protect several billion people. There is a pressing need to act internationally in response to emerging threats to food safety and fraud. Working together as a coalition of 33 partners to share knowledge and maximize our technologies will empower the food industry to provide safer, authentic food and will boost consumers’ confidence and ultimately facilitate the expansion of EU-China trade,” adds Professor Elliott.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is the only university in Hong Kong to participate in this significant food safety initiative. PolyU is glad to bring its cutting-edge food safety innovations and technologies to the international arena, by working together with 32 partners in EU and China, two of the world’s largest economies. 
 
Through its pioneering research, its various technology development and collaborative research platforms established, as well as the university’s long-term engagement with the industry, government, research institutes and non-profit-organizations, PolyU will continue to contribute towards the advancement of global food safety in collaboration with stakeholders.

The partnership is made up of 33 partners, including 15 in the EU and 18 in China.

Barcode Technology
Meanwhile a smart universal tool based on a simplified DNA barcoding technique combined with nanotechnology enables food authentication with the naked eye - answering the question “Is the food on the shelf really that what is written on the label?”
 
Through the journal Angewandte Chemie, Italian scientists have introduced a simplified assay coined NanoTracer. Combining DNA barcoding with nanotechnology, it requires neither expensive tools nor extremely skilled personnel, but just the naked eye to identify a color change.

The DNA barcoding technology identifies an organism by a short unique DNA sequence, the “barcode”. This barcode used for animal species, and therefore for meat products, is the sequence of a gene of mitochodria, which are cell organelles. Its sequence tells the examiner if the product on the shelf contains exactly the species that is declared on the label, not a substituted or a diluted one. 

However, DNA barcoding requires elaborate procedures and takes time. Therefore, Pier Paolo Pompa at the Italian Institute of Technology IIT, Genoa, and his colleagues from University of Milano-Bicocca (M. Labra), Italy, have developed a much simpler version of the test, termed NanoTracer, which requires fewer and cheaper reagents, scarce instrumentation, and features a simple color change as its output.
 
Its main concept is the reduction of the long barcode regions to short subregions, in which the species nevertheless show enough divergence. 
 
Shorter sequences have the advantage that even DNA can be identified that is no longer intact, as it happens in finished foods. The short sequences are then amplified by a polymerase chain reaction process. This step includes the second innovation. 
 
“Our assay includes a universal sequence, which serves to prime the aggregation of (universal) DNA-functionalized gold nanoparticles, with consequent red-to-violet color change.” Or, in other words, if the sample DNA sequence matches that of the simplified barcode primers, the respective DNA segment is amplified, and the added nanogold agent aggregates, turning the test solution's color from red to violet,” says the author. 
 
Using their assay, the scientists tested European perch, which is often substituted by cheaper fish species, and saffron powder, a high-value spice, which is frequently diluted with other herbs.
 
Both products were distinctly identified with NanoTracer, and the presence of substitutes or cheaper diluents was detected. 
 
As the authors point out, their simplified assay is rapid (it takes less than three hours) and sensitive, uses raw food material, is parallelizable, involves simple low-cost technology and materials, and therefore can be performed in decentralized simple laboratories at low cost.

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