LifeScanner aims to make seafood DNA testing simple and accessible

Published on
November 20, 2019

Ontario,Canada-based LifeScanner has been pushing to make choosing sustainable seafood products easier for corporations, consumers, and everyone in-between by focusing on one truth: genetic identification is hard to falsify.

While returning from an industry conference around 2014, LifeScanner’s soon-to-be founder Sujeevan Ratnasingham – the associate director of informatics at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph – ended up sharing a row on an airplane with an individual who had worked on the 23&Me DNA-based ancestry kits.

“I’m a research scientist and have been for a while now. At the university, we don’t usually try to solve direct problems within the market, but I had written, researched, and run experiments on technologies pertaining to the issue,” Ratnasingham told SeafoodSource. “And after my conversation with this individual the idea was formed for LifeScanner’s kits.”

LifeScanner is committed to improving Canada’s seafood labeling system through DNA testing, in partnership with Oceana, SeaChoice, and other agencies.

“We wanted to take DNA identification and make it really easy to use – a seamless, zero-training off-the-shelf product with incredibly low error rates,” Ratnasingham said.

As the product was being developed and tested, LifeScanner researchers imagined the kits being used by larger seafood corporations to test seafood species authenticity at the source, but the technology was quickly being adopted in other sectors – primarily by educators and NGOs.

The kits, which are available for purchase through the company's website at CAD 30 and 50 (USD 22.53 and 37.56, EUR 20.36  and 33.23) price points, are simple to use. The vials for each kit contain tweezers, a DNA fluid for the collected tissue, as well as instructions and a return shipment bag that is designed for bio-materials. Each kit includes a padded mailing envelope that can be returned to a LifeScanner lab for testing, which generally takes about two weeks currently.

“Seafood choices make up a serious impact to an environment that we have done a lot of damage to. People want to make sustainable choices, but you can’t make those sorts of sustainable choices without having the information,” said Ratnasingham. “When you buy seafood, you might think you’re making a particular choice, but it doesn’t really matter because the label could be wrong. Our goal is to reduce those errors throughout the market.”

Seafood mislabeling continues to loom large in North America and Canada, as a recent study from Oceana indicates. The study found that more than 60 percent of seafood products tested at Montreal grocery stores and restaurants were mislabelled.

LifeScanner kits have been used so far to collect data on the consumer-level, allowing individuals to test for potential mislabelling in their local restaurants and markets. If they do uncover mislabeling, consumers are encouraged to bring the issue to light with business owners with the hope that the information will be passed up the ladder, and/or make changes to their consumption habits and seek out more reputable seafood dealers.

The company has also stepped up its work in the retail and restaurant space in the past year, connecting with outlets that are interested in being able to vouch for their seafood standards with affordable DNA testing.

“There is a network of restaurants through British Columbia that we’ve worked with that are very interested in being able to guarantee to their customers that the kitchen is sourcing wild-caught Pacific salmon instead of serving farmed Atlantic salmon and passing it off as something else,” said Ratnasingham.

According to Ratnasingham, the company has collected data from over 400 restaurants throughout Canada. In the future, the company hopes to create a consumer-facing directory of sustainable seafood sources in the shape of a service-review application like Yelp.

Soon, LifeScanner is hoping to move into a third phase and finally begin sparking change within corporations and wholesale food producers involved in the bulk of the supply chain. The sooner in the process testing can be done, the more people that information can get to downstream, says Ratnasingham.

The DNA test kits will have been on the market for two years this March, and LifeScanner is preparing for a major improved launch for its next step. This spring, businesses will be able to purchase what are essentially “lab in a box” kits for larger operations.

“They will essentially be able to buy a miniaturized lab with all the tools and materials required for on-site DNA testing,” said Ratnasingham. “And just like our small, consumer-aimed kits, there won’t be a lot of training needed to operate them.”

With companies being able to easily test on-site, the hope is that large seafood wholesalers will be able to spot mislabeling early in the supply chain and adjust their operations accordingly.

The on-site lab solution will retail at CAD 12,000 (USD 9,012, EUR 8,142) with tests costing CAD 25 (USD 22.53, EUR 19.94) apiece.

While LifeScanner has yet to sign-on any major seafood businesses for lab purchases, the concept will go live in March at O. R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa, where government officials will test meat arriving at the airport to preventing illegal international trading and poaching.

Photo courtesy of LifeScanner

Reporting from Portland, Oregon

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