There’s nothing like sitting on the beach with a fresh grouper sandwich. Grilled, blackened, or fried, this hearty white fish is the one you’ve craved since the plane landed. You drive to your favorite seaside restaurant and order. Listed on the menu at $13.95, you sink your teeth into the half-pound wonder and sigh, thinking, "Aah, yes, money well spent." But how would you feel if DNA testing revealed that the fish you just ate was in fact Asian catfish rather than grouper?
Most of us would feel cheated by not getting what we paid for, and some of us would have serious concerns about the safety risks associated with food allergies. "Wait a minute," you say, "shouldn’t the government be doing something about this?" With 1,700 seafood species from all over the globe making numerous stops, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only inspects 2% of imported seafood for safety. Coupled with overfishing and the rising global demand for seafood, the result is suppliers who cheat with little or no consequences.
For years, the seafood industry has relied on isoelectric-focusing (IEF), which involves hitting a sample of fish tissue with a controlled electrical field that causes proteins to form patterns, in order to verify its species. But thanks to LeeAnn Applewhite and her company, Applied Food Technologies (AFT), there’s a faster, more accurate (99%) way. AFT confirms identity beyond the shadow of a doubt by comparing a “species specific” seafood DNA segment to DNA from a taxonomically confirmed sample. Known as DNA barcoding, a service which AFT was the first company to offer to food suppliers in 2006, it is what the FDA now recommends over IEF.
What makes DNA barcoding superior to IEF is its authentication process. Applewhite recognized the need for an authenticated database of fish species that she could use for reliable comparisons. She partnered with the University of Florida’s (UF) Florida Museum of Natural History, a world leader in fish taxonomy (the science of identification using specific physical characteristics). For a fee, museum curators provide her with taxonomic information about the fish she sends them from around the globe. A letter of validation affirms the species and the museum then stores the samples for reference.
The AFT and UF Florida Museum of Natural History partnership is a win-win. Valuable specimens are added to the museum, and AFT gets the expert identification it needs, as well as a place to store and index its fish. AFT also keeps a sample of each tissue identified by the museum and uses it to develop a DNA profile for its database. AFT is adding to this list all the time, and has over 1,500 commercially important species to date. Applewhite says there are many reputable databases online that are good for basic research, but commercial organizations that specialize in identification for regulatory compliance testing are prohibited from using them. That’s what makes AFT’s database so valuable.
BonafIDcatch has an exclusive relationship with AFT for DNA barcoding. Restaurants, grocery stores, and fish markets bearing the BonafIDcatch seal provide their customers with seafood species that have been authenticated with the DNA profiles in Applewhite’s proprietary database. When you see the BonafIDcatch seal, you know the seafood you’re getting is the seafood you paid for.
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