Introducing its new patented discovery to the food production sector, the company hopes its meat authenticity analysis tech will support businesses in making rapid decisions during manufacturing and offer consumers additional confidence in providing detailed product integrity.
According to Irish technology developer Bia Analytical, the roll-out co-occurs with heightened industry concern about mass food fraud and safety scandals in the UK’s meat sector following a recent meat controversy that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is investigating.
“Food fraud is not a new problem, but there is growing interest in addressing it due to its enormous impact on global trade and food safety,” a spokesperson for Bia Analytical told Fi Global Insights. “After numerous recent scandals, consumers have developed a greater interest in where their food comes from and what steps companies are taking to prevent these occurrences.”
Stating “the time is right”, the company says its tech launch comes as consumers need protection and manufacturers need to ensure what they sell is safe, genuine, and described as it states on its label.
The arrival of Rapid Evaporative Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (REIMS)
Professor Chris Elliott and his team at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast developed the technology, which is called Rapid Evaporative Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (REIMS), over ten years. Artificial intelligence (AI) has acted alongside the novel technology, which increases the testing system’s sensitivity and reliability, the company states.
The REIMS technology works by identifying the meat species and breed, the place of meat production, its maturation, and eating quality. Manufacturers can access this information by carrying out a single test. A core benefit of the REIMS approach is the inclusion of a hand-held probe that removes the requirement for sample preparation. As a result, the technology can provide test results to producers within minutes.
In 2021, researchers, including Professor Chris Elliott, explored REIMs and direct analysis in real time (DART) ambient mass spectrometry platforms. Published in the journal, Food Control, the study found that ambient mass spectrometry could be used as a tool to determine the implementation of poultry production systems.
“We believe there is no other testing system in the world that is as powerful at detecting multiple types of food adulteration in one single and rapid test,” Professor Chris Elliott says. “Food fraud is a multi-billion-pound criminal industry. Detection of this fraud needs cutting-edge science and technology.”
REIMS in action
“The process is started by a handheld sampling device which heats the sample generating an information-rich vapour”, says a spokesperson for Bia Analytical. The vapour is then introduced into the mass spectrometer, where ionisation occurs. Potential contaminants are actively removed, and the resulting ions are analysed by time-of-flight mass spectrometry.
Waters, a scientific technology company specialising in commercialising the instrumentation, owns the patent for REIMS, while Queen's University Belfast owns the intellectual property related to its modelling and data. Waters created a research system with the iKnife sampling device. The sampling tool produces information-rich vapour directly from the sample's surface without sampling preparation or chromatography.
“This approach involves developing and validating chemometric models that can tell the difference between, for example, Scottish and Welsh-produced meat, adulteration with different species and eating quality,” says Bia Analytical’s spokesperson.
Unknown samples are then tested against these models, built with confirmed authentic pieces. The validated samples originate at the carcass level and can be traced back to individual farms through animal passport data. DNA or genetic lineage can also be confirmed through the animal passport.
The samples submitted for testing can be of something other than retail quality, Bia Analytical says, as off-cuts or low-value material can also be used to build models and test samples. These can be presented as part of a customer’s routine checks on new suppliers, spot checks on existing suppliers or targeted checks in response to suspicions, such as whistle-blowers.
“REIMS technology is rapid, economical and allows for vastly greater numbers of samples to be tested in the same or shorter timescales as existing techniques,” Bia Analytical’s spokesperson says.
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Guarantee meat authenticity
Global food supply chains face ever-growing complexity and competition, requiring rapid changes to meet the food system's needs today and in the future. “Grey areas in the current controls can allow for accidental or deliberate mislabelling along the supply chain,” the spokesperson says. “Paper trails and documentation alone are not enough to guarantee authenticity. Rapid testing helps support better quality control and auditing.”
Exposure to food fraud can damage a manufacturer’s brand and reputation. Not only can it cost lucrative contracts, but it also has a negative impact on consumer confidence. “Legitimate companies want to see the removal of fraudulent practitioners whilst manufacturers, and ultimately governments, are responsible for food safety,” says the company’s spokesperson.
In April 2020, Bia Analytical was launched as a spin-out company from the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast. Its launch follows years of research, catalysed by the horsemeat scandal, by Professor Chris Elliott’s research group.
Impacting meat manufacturers, process and sector
“Having these checks in place gives manufacturers, retailers and consumers greater confidence in their produce and allows non-compliant produce to be withdrawn at a much earlier stage, saving money, providing safety and quality assurance and reduces the risk of reputational harm,” says the spokesperson.
By utilising REIMS, scientists and the meat sector can simultaneously determine the quality and consumer preference from the same sample analysis. This testing can be conducted alongside routine authenticity testing, adding additional value for each analysed sample.
Describing the technology as “cutting edge, evolving technology with a multitude of potential applications”, Bia Analytical’s spokesperson says these include the country of origin; speciation; adulteration such as with horse meat and pork in beef; detection of filler such as collagen; detection of animal by-products like spinal material; eating quality, and consumer preference such as cut, taste and tenderness. These tests have applications in fish, crustaceans, beef, pork, lamb, and poultry.