Today, recent disruptive innovations in the field of DNA sequencing technologies, including Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology, are challenging traditional approaches and methodologies of the TIC (Testing Inspection Certification) sector.
These recent high-throughput sequencing technologies enable DNA and RNA sequencing much faster than previous methods such as Sanger sequencing and will progressively become prominent in the fields of genomics, molecular biology, and of testing more generally.
In the agri-food sector in particular, these technologies are bound to replace a number of traditional technologies such as Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) or Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), i.e. the type of technologies used in 2013 for the horse meat scandal.
The cost of fraud in the food industry
The agri-food industry, which will feed more than 8 billion people in 2020, is very prone to fraud. Today, the global annual cost of food fraud is estimated at $15 billion, a fraud that would affect up to 10% of food products on the market, especially products for which it is difficult to detect possible contamination like vegetable oils, spices such as saffron, almonds, pistachios, fish, and also caviar!
In a case of proven food fraud, manufacturers are forced to recall their products, which costs them between $15 and $20 million per incident, not to mention consumer trust that is greatly damaged as a result. The European regulation FIC (Food Information to Consumers) was implemented in 2015 to fight against such mass fraud, but the risk of fraud remains a major concern for all the parties involved in the agri-food supply chain and consumers.
NGS: a remarkable technology for the control of agri-food products
Sequencing-based technologies have evolved considerably over the last 20 years. The NGS technology for example requires only one DNA molecule to produce a convincing result and is called "massively parallel", since each DNA molecule is sequenced independently within a "microreactor". This ability to analyse complex DNA blends was quickly exploited in the food industry to investigate the microbes responsible for many fermentation and deterioration processes.
Subsequent attempts to adapt the NGS technology to the detection of contaminating biological and chemical substances have been very promising, and an NGS-based methodology has even been marketed that claims to detect of more than 7,000 contaminants that are found in meat or plants. In addition, recent research has shown that an NGS platform can detect rates close to zero for pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria or E.coli.
Finally, unlike the more traditional technologies, NGS technology can even identify traces that a testing company is not necessarily looking for! This is possible due to the universal nature of NGS tests: a single test reveals all the potential threats, because instead of testing a single gene at a time, millions of genes are sequenced in parallel and as part of a same operation.
The ability to test a large number of contaminants simultaneously instead of having as many tests to perform as potential contaminants is a significant advantage over current established methods.
Beyond the technical aspects, the use of NGS technologies should also allow a significant reduction of detection costs in the food industry thanks to the latest generation equipment that can now deliver DNA sequencing at low cost. In addition, NGS platforms can offer a one-day turnaround time and produce results at a higher level of accuracy than traditional methods and other sequencing platforms.
This technology, which makes it possible to identify the exact strain of a pathogenic organism more precisely, to reduce shortly the overall cost of analysis and to offer a remarkable rapidity of results, is expected to revolutionize testing in the field of agri-food and to strengthen all food safety related processes for the advantage of both producers and consumers.
NGS to strengthen the Transparency and Traceability of the agri-food Supply Chain
The innovative NGS technology is already being offered to the agri-food sector by a variety of companies specializing in testing (such as Clear Labs in the US, Eurofins Genomics in Europe, Premier Analytical Services in the UK, and SGS) and thus should encourage the major players in the industry in their desire to better master the quality of their products and better know the origin of their ingredients. These players including processors, manufacturers, retailers and caterers will be able to trace their ingredients from the countries of production, better map their supply chains and above all prove to their customers the authenticity of their products.
Indeed the very large data produced by NGS technology will allows producers and manufacturers to provide consumers with accurate information on the origin of food they buy. Such an innovative approach is being piloted in France by Mars Food who, with the support of SGS (testing specialist) and Transparency-One (supply chain transparency solution), shares the origin of their ‘Uncle Ben's Rice’ with the consumers. By scanning the ‘Uncle Ben's’ package, French consumers will be able to discover the journey of their purchased rice, from production farm to their plate, including a video testimony from the farmer who produced it.
In conclusion, NGS technologies represent the most modern parallel sequencers available on the market. They are combined with advanced databases and fast DNA analysis technologies. An analysis makes it possible to obtain millions of individual DNA sequences, and thus to identify organisms in complex food products that include many different ingredients.
Moving forward the sequences obtained will be compared to huge databases and provide a complete list of all species contained in a sample. The rapid growth of these sequencing technologies and the transparency of the agri-food supply chain they guarantee will enable agri-food industry companies to detect more quickly and more accurately the possible presence of contaminating or fraudulent substances.
The increasingly affordable cost of these new technologies will make it possible for producers, retailers and the authorities to systematically identify fraudulent acts that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This will go a long way to reassure new generations of consumers who are increasingly demanding about the quality and origin of their food.