Q&A: LeeAnn Applewhite, Applied Food Technologies


Steven Hedlund

Published on
October 18, 2011

LeeAnn Applewhite has been in the seafood species identification game since the 1980s when she worked with Dr. Steve Otwell at the University of Florida’s Aquatic Food Products Lab. Now, as CEO of Applied Food Technologies in Alachua, Fla., she quarterbacks a molecular diagnostics company that’s on the cutting edge of seafood species identification technology.

Companies up and down the seafood supply chain are increasingly seeking the services of Applied Food Technologies and similar companies. Why? Species substitution and mislabeling remain prevalent, and seafood companies are finally realizing the importance of ensuring that they’re getting what they’re paying for — not only for the sake of their bottom line but also for the sake of their reputation.

But does the use of DNA analysis to verify seafood species qualify as mainstream? For Applied Food Technologies’ customers, it does, said Applewhite, whose company employs a DNA identification method that’s unique in the marketplace in that its foundation is based solely on taxonomically validated reference material.

SeafoodSource caught up with Applewhite on Tuesday to talk about Applied Food Technologies and the fight against economic fraud.

Editor’s note: Applewhite is among three panelists leading a 27 October SeafoodSource webinar titled “Cracking the code: The Latest Advancements in DNA Testing for Seafood.” The other two panelists are Edward Diehl of ACGT and Will Gergits of Therion International. Click here for more information. To listen in on the webinar and ask the panelists questions, you must be a SeafoodSource premium member. 

Hedlund: Is seafood fraud, particularly species substitution, becoming more prevalent? If so, why?  

Applewhite: Yes. Seafood mislabeling and economic fraud was considered to be a serious issue back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which prompted the FDA to create its regulatory fish encyclopedia and the Seafood List. The Seafood List is extremely important today because it outlines specifically what species of fish can be marketed under what label in the U.S. The FDA and industry recognized then that mislabeling can be a name translation issue and have attempted to alleviate that issue.

As the percentage of seafood that is imported increases, with more processing occurring overseas, the opportunity for mislabeling and fraud, intentional as well as unintentional, increases. But, mislabeled seafood is not just a problem with imported product — mislabeling has been found throughout the supply chain with domestic seafood as well. Seafood fraud is being seen more frequently by consumers now because consumers and consumer-advocacy groups have become much more aware that mislabeling is occurring.

Describe your client base. 

Our client base consists of foreign suppliers, importers, domestic suppliers, distributors, restaurants and grocery chains. We also test for federal and state regulatory agencies. Essentially, all seafood-related businesses seek our services, not just for species verification, but also to address various other issues in the seafood industry, such as chemical and microbial analysis, new market label guidance, aquaculture health and environmental testing.

When did you experience a significant increase in the number of clients you serve? And what caused this increase? 

We started our testing service in 2005 at the request of industry and at the recommendation of National Marine Fisheries Service after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Pascagoula [Miss.] lab. Prior to 2005, we were strictly a research and development company.

Our testing service has steadily increased every year. When our Authenti-Kit(SM) for catfish was accepted in 2006 by FDA for testing under Import Alert 16-128, our business at least doubled. We now do FDA’s recommended DNA barcoding method for import alerts and other regulatory testing. This was an easy transition for us since we had all our authentic reference fish and assisted in the development of both the sampling plan and extraction protocols for the DNA barcoding method.

You describe your DNA identification method as the “gold standard?” Explain. 

We are the “gold standard” because we are the only company that meets all of the FDA’s recommendations for species identification testing and have done so for years. We use strict sampling and chain-of-custody protocols, accepted by FDA, for all of our testing — not just for regulatory compliance testing for federal and state agencies. We are the first lab to use DNA species identification methodologies for FDA detained product testing, i.e. Import Alerts 16-04 and 16-128. We have a taxonomically validated database, which is also used for all of our testing. We have been doing this the longest, having over 20 years of experience working specifically with the seafood industry and regulatory agencies.

Is DNA testing for seafood becoming more cost effective? If so, does the industry realize this? 

Yes, the cost of molecular testing has come down significantly. We’ve presented some of our most popular testing programs to retailers, importers, everyone. And we say, “Look, It adds less than 3 cents per pound.” That’s a small price to pay considering the risk of harming a company’s finances and reputation. [Fraud] can be decreased or even avoided through this testing.

Is DNA testing of seafood a mainstream practice? 

DNA testing is mainstream for our long-term customers, such as Sysco and US Foods, two of the largest seafood distributors in the U.S. Both companies test internally and also require their suppliers to test. In our overall testing service, which includes all of our customers, we’ve seen a significant decrease in mislabeling for our steady customers (down from close to 50 percent in 2006 to around 20 percent for most species). We believe this is because their suppliers know they are being tested, and our customers are making better choices over time about how and where to source their seafood as a result of our testing.

Now that DNA testing is more available, I believe more companies will see the value in protecting their reputation and will begin testing. When will that happen? Well, now that the FDA has announced they have installed DNA sequencers for seafood testing in five field laboratories across the country and will begin using them on a routine basis by the end of the year, we suspect industry testing will become more prevalent, especially if FDA finds significant mislabeling.

What if species substitution and mislabeling go on unabated? What does the industry, and consumers, stand to lose if this isn’t dealt with now? 

Because so much mislabeled seafood is still found in commerce, it indicates that testing isn’t as prevalent as it should be. And the bottom line is that if it’s not addressed pretty soon, consumers will lose confidence in seafood and in the industry. If seafood fraud is not properly dealt with soon, essentially everyone loses.

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