Scientists Use DNA to Determine Food Contents

Horsemeat was recently found in IKEA meatballs in Europe
Horsemeat was recently found in IKEA meatballs in Europe

Wondering what's really in those meatballs? German scientists have come up with a way to determine the precise quantities of plant, animal and microbial substances in foods using DNA analysis. The technique could prove beneficial for people with food allergies, to test for pathogens in foodborne-illness outbreaks, and to discover stuff that shouldn't be in there, such as horsemeat or melamine.

Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, Genetic Security Research and Consulting at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz have adapted the latest techniques of DNA sequencing, which are otherwise employed in human genetics, and applied them to food products, according to a press release from the university.

"The innovative aspect in comparison with conventional DNA detection methods such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR for short, is that by means of bioinformatic analysis of all biological DNA data available worldwide we can identify the presence of material from species that we would not otherwise expect. And, using a simple digital method of counting short snippets of DNA, we will also probably be able to determine the relative incidence of individual species-related material more precisely than was previously the case," explained molecular geneticist Dr. Thomas Hankeln, who developed the method in collaboration with bioinformaticist Bertil Schmidt and colleagues at the German and Swiss food control authorities.

For example, in pilot studies, the researchers were able to use the new DNA method to detect the presence of a 1% content of horsemeat in products, determining the actual amount with a high level of precision. They also were able to detect slight traces of the DNA of added mustard, lupin and soy in a test sausage, something that could prove useful in testing foods for traces of allergens (or gluten).

The method -- dubbed the catchy "All-Food-Seq" by its developers -- has already attracted the attention of food-inspection experts. "This method is very interesting in connection with efforts to promote the molecular traceability of food," said Hermann Broll of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin and Dr. René Köppel of the Zurich Cantonal Laboratory in Switzerland.

But, do we really want to know exactly what's in sausages?

See also:

- Horse Meat Found in IKEA Swedish Meatballs

- FDA Proposes Tough New Food Safety Rules


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