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Are you a betting man? Food fraud affects everyone.

Salmon Dinner-4

How certain are you that the salmon you are eating and paying a premium for is actually Atlantic salmon vs. Pacific?

How certain do you think food retailers are?  

The US Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) estimates that food fraud costs the global food industry between $10-$15 billion annually, affecting 10% of all commercially sold food products.  Food fraud is the act of defrauding food buyers for economic gain, like substituting Pacific salmon for Atlantic salmon, or diluting ingredients like adding other oils not labelled to olive oil. Most recently in early 2015 the New York Attorney General sent cease and desist letters to major retailers for selling fraudulent herbal supplements based on DNA testing, demanding they remove the products from their shelves.

I must admit I love disruptive innovations and DNA testing to detect food fraud is truly that. Clayton Christensen (a famous Harvard Business School professor) is the father of this phrase and defined a great model to characterize the path these disruptive innovations take.  I would like to use this model to illuminate how far we have come with DNA testing to detect food fraud and where we are set to go.

A disruptive innovation:

1.  Begins with simple applications or services at the bottom of a market:  Today we can use DNA testing to answer the simplest of questions in your food supply, for example is there pork in this product?  Conversely, if we expect there to be pork in this product but there is not, then we can also ask what is this product?  


2.  Opens the market up to a new group of consumers that could not otherwise access it due to lack of money or skill: This is where we thrive as Emerging Technologies here at SAP Waterloo.  We have already unlocked this valuable testing to citizen scientists via the free LifeScanner mobile application built in cooperation with the Barcode of Life organization, available on the appstore today.  But we’re not stopping there.  We are working to make this technology available to Enterprises as well. What once was thought of as something that only PHDs in lab coats could do, I can confidently state we (meaning technologists, not scientists) can perform these types of tests using incredibly intuitive SAP software (I may be biased because we built it) and hardware out of our own WatHaus!       

3.  Initially offers lower profit margins per unit sold and attracts smaller markets than established competitors: I think we are at this stage now, attracting early adopters, those that want to reduce costly recalls, protect their brands, increase consumer confidence, and ultimately pay the fair price for the food they source.   

4.  Eventually begins to move up market to displace established competitors:  only a matter of time!

Salmon Dinner-4
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  • As a foodie, I can tell wild salmon from farmed (Pacific salmon is usually wild while Atlantic farmed) just by looking at it. 🙂

    Interesting blog... Would one really get accurate DNA results by sticking an iPhone (no Android? shame on you, SAP! 🙂 ) into a piece of salmon? Would be interesting to read about the accuracy and potential contamination concerns as well.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I think there's a little more to it than "sticking your iPhone into the salmon," which doesn't sound very appealing. There's mention of an "identification kit." I think the phone's role is to access the DNA reference library. But, my reaction (as a Pacific Northwesterner) is "who the heck pays a premium for Atlantic salmon over Pacific?"

      So, the reference library and the identification software is based on HANA? Is that the idea?

      • Matt Fraser wrote:

        But, my reaction (as a Pacific Northwesterner) is "who the heck pays a premium for Atlantic salmon over Pacific?"

        That was actually my first reaction too (even as a Southeasterner I have to admit the superiority of the other salmons). But I guess author meant that you can't be sure either way when paying premium for any reason. Probably would make sense to clarify this to avoid confusion and upsetting the salmon connoisseurs of SCN. 🙂

        But in any case I'm all for playing scientist at home and wish the blog had a bit more information. The referenced web site is also quite vague. Tried to watch the video and thought it'd show how the process actually happens but it just seemed like an ad.

        • I am glad that my blog has struck up conversation within the foodie community.  While there may be some very sophisticated palettes out there, substitution is more common place than you may expect.  The FDA produced a paper back in 2011 that looked at 99 salmon samples, of those 11% were Atlantic salmon sold as Pacific salmon.  More interesting was that 38% of the restaurant samples were mislabeled (you can check out the paper here:…)

          Now related to LifeScanner - you can download the app for free from the Apple app store which will allow you to look at the Barcode of Life information and see samples that have been submitted near your location.  If you choose to purchase a kit, the app becomes an accompaniment to your samples, allowing you to record important information related to your sample while also giving you the ability to track the sample through the DNA sequencing process (where you would learn about the steps the sample goes through to extract its ultimate identification).  The kits currently allow you to identify animals only which means you can use it for fresh meat like sushi or wild game.  As technological advances are made we certainly can foresee a day where users won't have to mail away their samples to a lab to sample (like with LifeScanner) but could instantly sequence the sample themselves.  For enterprises we are innovating with another type of DNA sampling technology which is more immediate and can tell the presence of an ingredient.

          Hope this helps clarify things for folks.  Keep the questions coming!

          • Thanks, Sarah. So, yeah, I can definitely see unscrupulous agents trying to pass off farmed Atlantic salmon as wild Pacific salmon, though for us sophisticated salmon connoisseurs, of course, we would instantly know the difference... well, maybe we would. Hmm, I hope I would. Actually, since we have just now in Seattle entered the season of "Copper River Salmon," which commands the highest prices imaginable (presumably because of the southeast Alaska rivers famous for their salmon runs, Copper River runs earliest in the year (and only for a few weeks), thus their fish are ready for market sooner (but only for a few weeks); also, supposedly, they actually load entire planeloads of it, fresh, not frozen, for immediate transport to markets in Seattle where people are willing to pay top dollar, while most other salmon runs are frozen at sea, etc)... Anyway, the upshot is that even someone with a decent piece of Pacific salmon to sell can get three times the price if they successfully claim it as Copper River salmon. So, the urge to deceive, and the need to detect, is quite real.

            Personally, I think Klondike River salmon is every bit as good, it just comes to market a little later, and it's a lot cheaper. And salmon caught in Puget Sound off my buddy's boat and eaten that same evening, after he calls and says "I need some help with a little salmon problem," is best of all.

            So I'm intrigued! I'm fixing to download the app right now. What's the difference between "LifeScanner" and "LifeScanner FDA Edition?"

          • Not sure many people would really care if some one-percenters get ripped off on the salmon from a wrong river. 🙂 But there were more interesting cases with ground meat that included some, um, unlabeled species. That's where a DNA tester would come in handy. But the results would have to be instant, not "mail a sample to the lab". Not many people would wait for long before eating something. And after eating not many might want to know what they ate. 🙂

          • You have to see it to believe it how this town goes crazy for Copper River Salmon for a couple of weeks in late spring. The media whips everyone into a buying/eating frenzy.

          • Matt, re media frenzy: Thus driving up the prices for Copper River salmon everywhere else that has to have it flown in. Got it. I must admit I have wondered if that salmon at my market that is  twice the price of the sockeye I've been buying is really worth it. However, it *is* pretty tasty. Looks like I need to plan a spring visit up there 🙂

      • Matt,

        I can't imagine paying a premium for Atlantic salmon. Where I shop, substituting Pacific salmon for Atlantic salmon would not be an economic gain for the market but rather for the lucky consumer. My market is welcome to "defraud" me like that any time; of course, I almost never ask for Atlantic salmon .