U of G Teams With High Schools to Detect Mislabelled Seafood

November 11, 2009 - News Release

A pioneering outreach project at the University of Guelph has turned high school students from across Canada into "food sleuths." The teens collected hundreds of samples of fish sold at stores, restaurants and markets and sent them to Guelph for DNA barcoding analysis to see if the fish was being mislabelled.

The national market survey project aimed to determine what percentage of fish is being sold as another species, said integrative biology professor Robert Hanner, who did the analysis at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). This is important not just because of the potential for consumer fraud but also because mislabelling can have dangerous consequences for people with allergies to a certain species.

The project was also designed to help high school teachers get their students interested in science, says Hanner. He worked with Toronto-based Bioscience Education Canada (BEC), a non-profit organization that encourages youngsters to study and work in biology and biotechnology.

"It's exciting," he said. "A technology we've developed here for species-level identification is a practical teaching tool that illustrates the patterns of descent with modification — or evolution — encoded in the genes, and it has socially relevant applications."

He plans to discuss the results and the teaching value of barcoding at an international conference in Mexico City today.

Hanner said the students found numerous examples of fish such as tilapia being mislabelled as species of higher value. Those results support the findings of a 2008 study in which students and scientists collected some 100 fish samples from restaurants and markets in Toronto, Guelph and New York City and found that about 25 per cent of the fish was mislabelled.

He said the high school projects were less tightly controlled and perhaps less scientifically rigorous than the 2008 study, but they did extend across Canada. And the students learned about scientific method and the need for careful documentation of their research.

BEC contacted teachers to organize the barcoding initiative and developed a related curriculum module for classroom use. Hanner sent sampling kits and instructions to the chosen schools. Students also took part at Seneca College, Dalhousie University and U of G.

Tony Legault, a retired schoolteacher and BEC’s Toronto-region co-ordinator, said the group hopes to improve public science literacy. "In the long term, we hope we're going to develop better scientists.”

For one Toronto high school student, the project was more than just academic. Her father has a life-threatening food allergy, which spurred her and other science club students at Northern Secondary School to collect the samples.

"She wrote a paper and did all the data analysis," said Jane Lee, a science teacher who volunteered her school for the project. "Her dad is allergic to some fish on the Pacific coast, and if it's mislabelled Atlantic coast, he could get deathly ill. For her, it had personal significance."

Lee added that the project was “a really neat hands-on experience. It's a real-world application, an ongoing project to get our kids involved in something that's happening in real time — cutting-edge technology."

DNA barcoding is a molecular technique developed by integrative biology professor Paul Hebert that allows scientists to match up barcodes from specimens of unknown identity to those derived from expert-identified reference specimens.

U of G leads the International Barcode of Life project to barcode five million of the world’s specimens over the next five years. In addition, the Barcode of Life Database at Guelph allows researchers to match up unknown species, including fish. Hanner co-ordinates the Fish Barcode of Life campaign intended to barcode the world’s fish species.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338 or lhunt@uguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982 or bagunn@uoguelph.ca.

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