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Where does honey come from and from which cattle breed the filet?

02/2009, 15.01.2009

International workshop on methods to trace the geographical and biological origins of food at BfR

What cattle breed does my steak come from? Where does the honey in a jar come from? Does the feed contain genetically modified organisms? In order to answer questions of this nature, the food inspection agencies and industry need reliable methods to trace the geographic and biological origins of food which must also be rapid and reasonably priced. At the workshop "Molecular Methods for Traceability Purposes" at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on 18 and 19 December 2008, experts from 16 countries presented the molecular methods that are already fit for practice. Furthermore, they demonstrated the developments that will facilitate the work of inspection agencies in the near future and improve quality assurance in food production. "In the context of the global food trade and the growing cultivation of genetically modified plants for food and feed, certification of origin and determining the geographical origin of a product constitute a challenge for both industry and the inspection agencies", stressed BfR President  Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Consumers should be sure that what it says on the outside is what is really inside". Using natural scientific methods to identify the food’s origin in the food itself not only affords protection from deception. Using natural scientific methods in the food itself to establish its regional origin serves not only the purposes of protection from fraud but also those of food safety particularly when food contaminations are clearly limited to specific regions.

The label and the consignment note do indicate where the product comes from. In case of doubt it’s better, however, when the origin can be read from and detected on the product itself. Furthermore, reliable detection methods are a deterrent to adulteration. They can, therefore, be seen as a preventive measure.

Within the framework of the European research project on the traceability of foods “Trace”, scientists from the BfR Food Safety Department demonstrated that the geographical origin of honey can, in principle, be traced using molecular-biological methods. The starting point is the pollen profile in the product. This is because the composition of the pollen from local flora, from the blossoms of which bees collect the nectar, is typical for a geographical region and is mirrored in the honey made from it. First of all, the BfR scientists determined the typical pollen profile of flora from Corsica using molecular-biological methods and stored it as a geographical DNA fingerprint in a database. Then they determined the DNA fingerprint of pollen from various honey samples. The studies confirmed that they were on the right path to being able to quickly and reliably trace the geographical origin of the honey.

Similar methods were developed by Spanish researchers to determine the origin of tinned tuna pieces. Using molecular-biological techniques like polymerase chain reaction (PCR), they set out to distinguish the expensive white tuna from the less expensive Bonito tuna. But, modern molecular-biological methods can do even more. Italian researchers succeeded in establishing which cattle breed a steak came from. Soon it will also be possible in this way to reliably and rapidly determine whether an organic product really does come from an organic farm or not.

During the Workshop it was established that the exact determination of the animal species in feed samples that have undergone a high degree of processing (high-pressure, high-temperature production, finely ground, etc.) is a problem. The methods have to be developed further, for instance by the National Reference Laboratory for Animal Protein in Feed within BfR.

Besides the development of molecular detection methods of this kind, the “Trace” project also pursues a second objective. It is setting up a database in which the molecular detection methods and fingerprints of foods are to be classified by geographical and biological origin. They are to be made available at a later stage to the inspection agencies and industry when questions crop up about certification of origin and product identity. The European research project involving some 54 scientific institutions and companies from the EU ends in 2009.