Thursday 25 December 2014

Food production systems crying out for scientific innovators

Published 24/01/2013 | 05:00

The biggest story to engulf Ireland's agri-business world in the last week is also a golden opportunity for our more scientifically-minded entrepreneurs.

The Burger-gate story has threatened to turn into a major speed-wobble for an otherwise booming meat sector.

As UCD's Professor of Public Health, Pat Wall put it, Ireland has positioned itself up on a pedestal that others would love to see us fall off.

Last week's revelations about horse DNA in beef burgers has given that pedestal a good rattle.

But I'm confident that, just as the pig sector recovered from the dioxin crisis, the beef industry will bounce back from this latest body blow. That's provided that we quickly get to the bottom of how exactly 29pc of a beef burger's meat content contained horse DNA.

Prof Wall says that the type of DNA testing required to reveal these discrepancies costs up to €200 a pop, despite huge advancements in the efficiency of the tests.

This makes it far too expensive to become a routine test on every box of burgers that leaves a meat processor. Bear in mind that we ship about 50,000 tons of burgers alone from these shores on an annual basis.

But the fall-out from this episode will ensure that it becomes a routine random test in our food traceability systems.

This will add some cost to our food production systems, but it surely pales in comparison to the millions of burgers and lost business that has resulted from the latest scare.

Irish company

Happily, an Irish company leads the way in the development and roll-out of the technology required.

IdentiGEN was set up by a pair of Trinity scientists in the midst of another food crisis in the Nineties – BSE. They realised that their expertise in genetics could provide greater assurances for a public that was becoming increasingly unnerved by what they were putting in their shopping baskets. Today the company has offices in a number of countries around the world. They have seen their technology adopted by everybody from the biggest food companies in the world to farm lobby groups such as the IFA.

The latter have been quietly DNA testing all pigmeat on the supermarket shelves after they realised during the pork dioxin crisis that a lot of the 'Irish' pigmeat brands were actually flogging imported meat to unsuspecting customers.

But DNA testing is just one example of the higher standards of accreditation that every food traceability system is going to require in the years ahead.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are coin sized tags that are as cheap as chips, according to Prof Wall.

"They are put in a box of food before it leaves a depot and tracks exactly where a product has been and can be read out by a smartphone," he said.

Similarly, thermograph readers are other cheap, disposable devices that can be put into packaging to track temperature changes, thus ensuring the product has been maintained at the correct temperature for the duration of its life.

All of these developing technologies present opportunities for innovative Irish scientists. And they have a ready market on their doorstep in a food sector that is desperate to regain customer confidence.

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