Food Fraud: How do you know there's no beef or chicken in your Matar Paneer? Here’s how
Why has someone with a degree in aircraft engineering and business administration developed a product to tell you if you are drinking milk or chalky water? Born in Punjab, educated in London and now based in Switzerland Brijdeep Sahi says that's because risk and out-of-the-box thinking grabs him. Besides, he understands discipline and rigour, attributes which are at the core of the start-up SwissDeCode. He has certainly spotted an opportunity in testing DNA of food. "Our company aims to build on-site food authentication in the supply chain sharing food safety, food-testing and exposing food fraud in real time," Sahi told The News Minute's Chitra Subramaniam in an interview. Excerpts.
How did SwissDeCode happen?
I met my co-founders in a citizen-science lab where we had fun comparing DNA from different beers. The project obtained some visibility and one day a manager from a big brewing company called us, asking for more info. One of their brands was at risk of recall. If they could prove their innocence by demonstrating, with DNA, that the tainted beer was actually a counterfeit, then an employee would save their career. We understood that 1) we were touching a pain point; 2) beer was not the biggest pain point we could solve.
Is this the first time such a process has been developed?
DNA testing for food authentication, origin and safety has been around for a while and it became very popular during the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe. For the first time, we have taken the DNA test out of the laboratory and in to the field. The DNAFoil test can be performed by non-technical staff, without laboratory equipment and results can be seen in 20 mins.
What does it cost?
This price is significantly cheaper than the equivalent laboratory test.
Can people buy this technology/process for their homes i.e. will there be an over-the-counter food tester in the market soon?
Our initial targets are Government Agencies and companies that are already performing similar tests in laboratories. We can add value to their operations because our test will deliver results in 20 mins, whereas laboratories will take up to 7 days to deliver the same result. Decisions can be made immediately and onsite.
We have already created a DNAFoil for Pork which will go in to production in October. We are considering creating a DNAFoil to detect meat in vegetarian dishes. If there is a consumer demand for this, then we will launch it accordingly. I should also mention that we can create a DNAFoil to detect cow beef or Buffalo meat. Perhaps this is something that may be very useful in India. I have read the stories of people claiming that something is Buffalo when in fact it is Cow Beef or vice versa.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about food adulteration?
The most common misconception is that all testing has to be done in the lab. We have demonstrated that tests can be performed on site and by a layman.
What are among the most common cases/forms of food adulteration?
Any food that is sold in large quantities or is expensive to buy, are immediate targets for food fraud by criminals. Orange juice, Milk and Honey are commonly adulterated. Saffron, is one of the most exotic and expensive spices in the world, and not surprisingly, it is a major target.
Is there a number (percentage) you can put on adulterated food globally i.e. how big is food fraud?
The World Customs Organisation has stated that Food Fraud costs the food industry USD49 Billion a year.
How bad is the situation in India?
It is difficult to put a figure on it but from press reports, food fraud is a common occurrence. I am sure your readers are fully aware of its extent.
What are the most common instances of food adulteration in India?
Once again, I cannot say without a study to back me up, but I would say that Milk, Juices and Meats would be near the top of the list. The adulteration can be easily disguised. Secondly it would be tea and spices. I can imagine West Bengal’s Darjeeling tea being a target.
What has the response been from the food industry - running scared or welcoming?
The response has been very positive. We are positioning ourselves in to their existing processes and making life easier for them. They immediately see the value of being able to make decisions on site and in real time.