Most people believe that France is a nation of foodies, but who would have though they’d go this far? French biotech firm BioMérieux may soon begin helping food distributors confirm the contents of the meat that arrives at their warehouses, and empower regulators to determine the ingredients in the feed that fed those animals.
Sound like a mouthful? It may be. It may also be a neat little niche that Affymetrix has found for its GeneChip microarray technology. Earlier this week, the DNA chip giant said it will manufacture arrays for BioMérieux that will eventually become tools used by regulators to confirm the authenticity of a wide array of food products — including 23 different species of fish and sea mammals, 15 land mammals (including mice, domestic cats, and humans) and five birds. The product, which will be called FoodExpert ID, would also help determine whether animals were fed animal byproducts — a violation of law in many countries.
“This is a test to be able to say, definitively, that this is exactly what you have in your food product,” Affy spokeswoman Anne Bowdidge told SNPtech Reporter. “This is such a different area from anything that’s been done in the past” with microarray technology.
Regulatory agencies currently test for the presence of animal byproducts in animal feed by isoelectric focusing, and by looking for microscopic bone fragments in feed samples. The specter of mad cow disease has led to a sharp increase in the use of these tests, and biotech companies with technologies that enable high-throughout screening have become more popular.
On the meat-for-human-consumption side, food wholesalers have traditionally used ELISA tests and real-time PCR to confirm the contents of their meat. Using the FoodExpert ID would be “a really quick and easy method of confirming the contents of animal-based human food and animal feed,” said Bowdidge.
For example, food-service providers like McDonalds or Tyson Foods often obtain their raw materials from outside suppliers, Bowdidge said. BioMérieux’s chips, which Affy will manufacture in its facility near Sacramento, Calif., “would enable companies or governments to verify the identity of food products from these outside sources.”
Regulatory groups “could use the chip to ensure that their outside suppliers are not mixing food products from different clients,” she wrote in an e-mail to SNPtech Reporter. The chip might also be used “by the quality assurance and food safety departments at food companies or government agencies that already have experience in molecular testing.”
Bowdidge said the product does not require regulatory approval anywhere in the world, and added that BioMérieux will begin selling the product worldwide in the fourth quarter. Jean-Luc Balzer, director of BioMérieux’s food and animal-feed program, declined to comment for this article.
Bowdidge added that BioMérieux will initially launch a product that tests for the origin and contents of food and animal feed, and that future applications will likely include tests for bacterial strains and a diagnosis for sepsis.
While Affy claims this is the first time a DNA chip will be used for such an application, a handful of companies are figuring out how to apply their DNA-analysis technology to determine the origin of food products, or even to identify contaminants in the meat.
Today, a unit of GAG Bioscience, a tiny biotech in Bremen, Germany, is using its MALDI-TOF-based genotyping technology to help government regulators, farmers, and even consumers trace cattle to the farm in which it was raised and the abattoir in which it was slaughtered.
The application, which GAG CEO Jorn Mosner conceded hasn’t caught on outside of Germany’s farming community, might also be used to trace which meat was grown organically, or which originated in slaughterhouses with a history of quality-control problems [see 7/17/03 SNPtech Reporter]. Company officials maintain the strategy was sound when it was created, citing the notoriously stringent European Union food regulations.
“Unfortunately,” said Mosner, “that didn’t pan out commercially.” However, he said the cost of the company’s technology would result in a one- to two-cent increase in the cost of beef per pound, but expressed doubts that consumers would recoil at the increase.
In response, Orchid Biosciences, whose prionics business competes with GAG’s scrapie-genotyping play, intends to enter this market, according to CEO Paul Kelly. He told SNPtech Reporter in July that the company will jump into the space because an undisclosed number of current customers voiced their belief that the Cellmark platform can be applied there. “It’s a new market for us; it’s a new initiative,” Kelly said.
Another company, Uppsala, Sweden-based Biacore, developed an array-based tool that may enable regulators to test animals for food contaminants in the field, according to a report in BioArray News, SNPtech Reporter’s sister publication. For example, this platform, called Foodsense, uses surface plasmon resonance detection to help confirm the presence of sulfamethazine and sulfadiazine in porcine bile.