Q&A: DNA analysis ‘a pressing need’

ACGT has been in the DNA sequencing business for almost 20 years. But, last year, the Wheeling, Ill., company jumped into seafood species identification with the launch of its Seafood ID service. Eddie Diehl, the firm’s director of business development, says there’s a pressing need to move beyond playing “gotcha” with restaurateurs and retailers and toward mainstream use of DNA analysis to identify seafood species.

Forristall: How does ACGT’s Seafood ID service work? 

Diehl: Basically, we accept [seafood] samples from everyone, from fishermen to consumers. We sequence the DNA, compare it to a database and tell them what the species is.

We recognized a need [for this service] about this time last year. There’s an incredible amount of fraud in the seafood industry, not only with substitution of fish and shellfish but also the new initiatives with sustainability and traceability. Particularly with species identification we saw a real opportunity to help out. This is a whole new set of clients for us, and we’re excited about it because we could transition our expertise to an entirely new industry in terms of species identification.

Do you think seafood fraud is becoming more common, or is it just getting more media attention? 

Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Are we just seeing more fraud now because we’re detecting it now more often? I can’t say. I’ve done quite a bit of reading, and I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast answer. But I do know, with increased economic pressures around the planet, the motivation to decrease fraud is not there, unless there’s some sort of surveillance and combination of certifications, as well as what we’re doing.

You’ll see a newspaper article where they’ve bought fish and sent it to a lab for a custom work-up. They’ll find fraud, and that gets the public all furious or infuriated. But then it goes away until the next story breaks, until someone does the same thing. It shouldn’t just be an occasional newspaper article with a custom work-up. This should be routine, and it can provide ongoing surveillance for the seafood industry that isn’t just once in a while.

How much does DNA testing cost? 

There’s a lot of interest. People are starting to realize that the technology is available. But what I’ve found is that they’re under the impression that this is incredibly expensive — that it’s thousands [of dollars], and it’s not. Part of the education we need to provide to clients is that it’s not expensive. Right now, per sample ,it’s about USD 75 to USD 80. We can do more than that or better than that for ongoing testing and contract-based testing, and it can end up being pennies per pound.

What kind of seafood clients are you targeting? 

We think most of our clients are going to be retailers or vendors. But it could be processors or fishermen who want to establish a brand or restaurants that want to ensure what they’re getting.

When we talk to retailers, especially big retailers, we tell them we don’t necessarily do this kind of testing for you because we’re expecting to get lots of wrong answers. We expect to get lots of right answers that you can pass on to customers, who you’re trying to get in your doors.

How often have you found seafood mislabeling for the DNA testing that you’ve done so far? 

I’d say it’s about 50/50. The last big sample we had was about 20 to 25 percent mislabeled. Sometimes it is quite honestly a similar species, and sometimes it is an off-the-charts wrong species. The last large one that we had was expecting it, which speaks to the point of increased awareness of fraud that’s going on.

Editor’s note: Diehl is one of two DNA specialists — Will Gergits, managing member of Therion International in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is the other — participating in a 27 October SeafoodSource webinar titled “Cracking the Code: The Latest Advancements in DNA Analysis of Seafood,” available only to SeafoodSource premium members. Stay tuned for details. 


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