FDA studies fishy species claims

They say “watch what you eat,” a piece of advice the government is looking at closer than before. It turns out, what you think you are eating might not be what you are actually eating.

Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are taking the issue of species substitution into their own hands, implementing a DNA barcode project to identify fish species.

Is the “U.S. catfish” you just bought really from the U.S.? Is the descriptor “wild caught” code for “came from an aqua farm”? These are just a few of the questions scientists will be able to answer with the new barcode system.

The system relies on DNA testing and other high-tech procedures to create a barcode (not unlike the barcodes you may be used to seeing on manufactured products) unique to the particular species. When a fish arrives at the lab, scientists remove a small piece to be diagnosed for genetic information. The information is then added to a public database, available on the FDA website — used by regulators (both inside and outside the FDA), scientists and other academic researchers.

According to the FDA, about 30,000 species of fish are thought to exist — 1,500 of which are sold commercially in the U.S. The new system will help to alleviate confusion as to what is being bought and sold, to point out illegal/mislabeled substitutions of fish and to trace specific sources of outbreaks.

This is a great improvement from previous methods of species identification, which relied on physical characteristics and protein analysis that weren’t always accurate (particularly if the fish had already been cooked).

Instead, scientists can now use just a pinhead-size of fish tissue to isolate and replicate the DNA, eventually leading to a unique barcode for the species. As for the fish being already cooked, that is no longer a worry. The technique can be used on most anything, from bits of fish in soup to fillets.

“We know that [the project] has immediate practical applications to prevent seafood fraud and increase the safety of food,” said Jonathan Deeds, Ph.D., an FDA research biologist in an FDA article. “The additional benefits in the future to science and the public we can only imagine.”

So far, the FDA has trained more than 20 analysts around the country in the testing procedure who are now performing it on a regular basis.

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