Rapid DNA analysis system is being developed to screen processed vegan foods

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Cross-contamination is a big problem for allergy sufferers and vegans. With numerous companies making “fully vegan” products, EthiChain has developed technology that could put such claims to the test. She has done this to increase transparency and integrity in the food chain, citing “food fraud” as a global problem.

Food fraud erodes consumer confidence, although prolific cases never seem to leave the public eye. From restaurants deliberately “spiking up” vegan foods to the horsemeat scandal of 2013, consumers are regularly reminded that they don’t know exactly what they’re eating. EthiChain can remedy this with food identification technology.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

give peace of mind

EthiChain is a EIT food-funded project, which in turn is funded by EU funds. Other notable partners are Lithuanian technology companies ART21, the University of Bologna in Italy, the Spanish technology center AZTI and the Technion from Israel. The Swiss SwissDeCode is the last cooperative supporter and contributes to a diverse network of technology and research experts. First, EthiChain addresses cases of cross-contamination and mislabeling of ethical or religiously-oriented food. Halal, kosher and vegan items are particularly interesting.

“As we know, kosher and halal food are subject to strict regulations [rules]. They have to be made in a very specific way,” said EthiChain lead researcher Elisa Jiménez FoodNavigator-USA. “DNA testing can help verify ingredients at the species level.” When it comes to vegan foods, attention is paid to processed options. Items such as sausages, meatballs and ready-to-eat cold cuts are currently being investigated. Ready meals including vegan lasagne are also included. The results are available in just 30 minutes.

Marketing of the development

EthiChain was started as a 12-month research project. It is used to develop three diagnostic tools. One is looking for meat in vegan products, the other two are looking for pork in halal items and horse or donkey in kosher products. Initial results are promising, with scaled application appearing cost-effective thanks to the use of isothermal amplification.

“Companies generally use real-time polymerase chain reaction technology. However, it requires much larger equipment and the technicians working with these systems must be relatively well trained,” explained Jiménez FoodNavigator-USA.

Conversely, after just two hours of training, the EthiChain system is suitable for everyone. It will also offer lower installation and analysis costs, allowing more companies to adopt the development to boost consumer confidence. In the final months of the project, the EthiChain team is finalizing the digitization platform that will enable effective data management and create a salable product by the first quarter of 2024. Initial distribution is planned within the EU, with scope for further expansion if uptake goes as hoped.

EthiChain was able to identify animal products in vegan foods
Photo of Rudy’s Vegan Butcher.

Cross-contamination concerns

While certification labels can be useful if you’re looking to buy products free from animal derivatives, there’s usually a “what if?” moment. for consumers. Unlike horse meat in Ikea meatballs, simple contamination from cooking methods can cause upsets. That’s exactly why Burger King came under fire when it first introduced its Rebel Whopper in the UK. Although it was labeled as plant-based, it wasn’t suitable for vegans as it was cooked on the same grills as beef patties. This led to a re-imagining of the dish, later called the Plant-Based Whopper, which was prepared entirely separately from meat products.

Points of sale looking to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination are now taking shape. A number of fully vegan butchers and delicatessens have started to open around the world. Rudy’s seems to have started the trend in London in 2020, but more are popping up. Singapore welcomed its first plant-based butcher shop in February this year, aimed at open-minded meat eaters. Over in France, Carrefour shocked consumers by installing a vegan meat counter in one of its supermarkets. Fueled by The Vegetarian Butcher’s products, it represented a huge mentality shift in the traditionally meat-loving country.


Leading Photo by RODNAE Productions by Pexels.

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