Student Sleuths Raise Questions about Food Labelling

January 29th, 2010 | Sources: LA Times

Subjects: ,

How’s this for a cool high-school science project?

There'saflyinmycheeseBrenda Tan and Matt Cost, a pair of students at Trinity High School in Manhattan, recently performed DNA analysis of food items and other objects collected in their homes and surrounding environs.

They found a hellacious mix of mislabeled and possibly tainted food items and raised a ton of questions in the process.

Among their notable discoveries:
–  A pricey chunk of so-called sheep’s milk cheese turned out to have been derived from cow’s milk,
–  Fish labeled smelt turned out to be Japanese anchovy,
–  “Venison” dog treats were actually made from beef
–  Sturgeon caviar samples contained DNA from that widely-known delicacy, the Mississippi paddlefish.

The students dubbed their project “DNAHouse.” They analyzed their collections using the Barcode of Life Database which is normally used in species identification. They secured help from DNA barcoding experts at Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History for their project.

A write-up of their work appears here.

“We do not know where or why the mislabeling occurred, but most cases appeared to involve substitution of a less expensive or less desirable item, suggesting the possibility of deliberate mislabeling for economic gain,” the authors wrote. “We also think mislabeling is a serious problem because certain individuals have allergies or dietary restrictions regarding certain foods.”

Trinity has a track record for producing these kinds of stories. Last year, 2 other Trinity students created a stir by reporting that one-quarter of the fish at local markets and restaurants was mislabeled.

Of note, Tan and Cost also sampled hair from several classmates. “We were happy to report,” they wrote, “that our classmates came back as 100% human.”


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