Tracing food crops’ source through genetic analysis

lab testing

State-of-the-art DNA tracking methods developed at the University of Adelaide are set to help fibre, food and plant oil producers and processors verify their products’ source of origin—and support authorities fighting fraud.

Globally, food and fibre fraud is big business. The substitution or mixing of high-value products with lower grade imitations is estimated to cost the food industry $54 billion and account for at least 30% of the $180 billion fibre and timber market.

Aware of this, researchers in the University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences are applying their advanced DNA analysis technology and methods to enable faster, higher volume identification of plant species and their region of origin in food, fibre and oil products.

“This technology has come a long way in recent years,” says lead researcher and University Director of Food Innovation Professor Andy Lowe. “Many of the challenges that previously made DNA extraction difficult have been overcome. We can now analyse hundreds of DNA samples at a time and process all the data very quickly indeed.”

This is good news not just for producers looking to support their claims of premium produce, but also processers and importers who may be unsure of the legitimacy of premium-origin claims.

“Different plant species are easily distinguished by the naked eye when you have leaves, flowers or fruit, of course. But when plant products are ground up these features disappear. In these cases, DNA sequencing can be used to deliver species and even region-of-origin confirmation.”

The team originally developed its approach to facilitate DNA tracking of timber, with a view to helping authorities monitor and police illegal logging. The possibility of its broader application to food crops and other industries, however, was always part of the team’s vision.

“Our methods can be used with almost any biological product,” continues Professor Lowe.

“That even includes traditional Chinese medicines, oils and nutritional or dietary supplements. We can rapidly identify the plant, animal or microbial species in a product, and where it was grown, produced or processed.

“That’s of great interest to law enforcement and regulatory authorities keen to identify and dissuade fraud.”

Related links:
School of Biological Sciences
Food Innovation
Professor Andrew Lowe – researcher profile