Projects / Programmes source: ARIS

DNA based technology for fraud detection in fishery products with socioeconomic impact assessment

Research activity

Code Science Field Subfield
1.03.03  Natural sciences and mathematics  Biology  Ecosystems 

Code Science Field
B260  Biomedical sciences  Hydrobiology, marine biology, aquatic ecology, limnology 

Code Science Field
1.06  Natural Sciences  Biological sciences 
food, fishery, fish products, fraud, DNA, Q-PCR, NGS
Evaluation (rules)
source: COBISS
Researchers (7)
no. Code Name and surname Research area Role Period No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  20038  PhD Dunja Bandelj  Biotechnology  Researcher  2018 - 2020  271 
2.  32571  PhD Alenka Baruca Arbeiter  Plant production  Researcher  2018 - 2020  123 
3.  05677  PhD Štefan Bojnec  Economics  Researcher  2018 - 2020  1,720 
4.  30863  PhD Matjaž Hladnik  Biotechnical sciences  Researcher  2018 - 2020  88 
5.  11069  PhD Lovrenc Lipej  Biology  Head  2018 - 2020  1,055 
6.  19119  PhD Mojca Milavec  Biotechnology  Researcher  2018 - 2020  291 
7.  15367  PhD Andreja Ramšak  Biology  Researcher  2018 - 2020  322 
Organisations (2)
no. Code Research organisation City Registration number No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  0105  National Institute of Biology  Ljubljana  5055784  13,101 
2.  2790  University of Primorska, Faculty of mathematics, Natural Sciences and Information Technologies  Koper  1810014009  16,834 
Fish represent an important source of protein in the diet, but due to the promotion of beneficial effects on health, their consumption has increased in recent decades in the developed world. Fisheries is a very complex and highly controlled industry in the developed countries (EC Common Fisheries Policy) in order to ensure the conservation of fish stocks and the functioning of ecosystems. The development of fisheries and the associated processing activities has contributed to the extension of the chain, from catch through processing and distribution to the consumer. Therefore, the fishing industry is very vulnerable to fraud throughout the chain from fishing or production in aquaculture to retail. The most common fraud involves substitution of fish species (that can be unintentional due to the large species similarity and difficulties with the taxonomic determination, or intentional in order to hide illegal fishing or to sell less quality fish as high quality), which affects the product quality. In addition to above mentioned longer chain, INTERPOL and the European Commission (EC) for food have found that fishery products are highly subject to fraud also due to fishing in remote areas, landing and processing in third countries (e.g. filleting) and than re-processing to retail outlets.  Due to altered eating habits, fast-prepared products (e. g. fish sticks) have become very popular. However, due to highly processed ingredients, their species composition is difficult to determine. Moreover, due to the scandals with the food fraud, increasing overfishing on a global level and increased awareness among consumer, there is a need for greater control of fishery products. It is also important to emphasize that health problems are not negligible, since some types of fish and other seafood are among the very allergenic foods that cause anaphylactic shock. They can also be toxic due to toxins or chemical pollution in the environment. For the sale of whole fish and fillets, the European Commission regulates the content of declaration in order to inform the consumer about the source, fishing method and fishing area. While for the processed products, the traceability is lost. With the development of DNA technology, new approaches and techniques for detecting frauds in fisheries products have been developed and some of them have already been officially used, for example identification of fish species with COI barcoding. In the past years, a number of EC funded projects have been carried out, which have contributed to new findings and results and can be used to develop techniques for identifying the species identity of ingredients in fisheries products. Due to the increasing pressure on fishery resources and the number of detected frauds in various foods, numerous studies have been conducted around the world in order to assess the extent of fraud and their economic damage. The results show that a large proportion of fishery products (from fillets to more processed products) have been incorrectly identified. However, very scarce data is available for Slovenia. According to the EC study (2015) about 1 % of fish fillets were incorrectly identified. In Slovenia, COI barcodes are used for testing filets. The method is reliable but has some limitations with highly processed products, heat-treated products, or products with a low content of ingredients. The problem has also been identified by the EC and the Commission for Fisheries. Moreover, this knowledge and the methods for a reliable and quickly identification of fishery fraud are also required by other user (Ministry of Agriculture, processing industry, informed consumers…). The objectives of the proposed project are: to review the supply of fishery products on the Slovenian market and to find out which are the most risky fishery products and species that need to be monitored, and also, to check the identity of the declared species. The project also aims to identify the most important fish s
Significance for science
Within the framework of the project, new innovative methods will be developed in addition to the implementation of already established molecular methods such as DNA barcoding. The new innovative methods will be faster, cheaper and applicable for processed fish products. It is well known that already established molecular methods such as "DNA barcoding" are not effective for heat-treated samples, because heat treatment and high pressure cause DNA fragmentation. Such products misled consumer due to inadequate or improperly labeling (ingredients can be unnamed, substituted or belong to different species). It is known from the literature, that already established molecular methods such as "DNA barcoding" are not effective for heat treated samples because the Folmer region (655 base pairs long fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome C oxidase gene) or a part of the cytochrome b are to long to analyse them in the fragmented DNA. In recent years, metabarcoding method has been implemented for such samples, which is based on the amplification of shorter targets (up to 300 bp, for example, the Leroy COI region) of multiple species. Analysis begin with the DNA extraction from the whole sample using the appropriate technique, then the targets are amplified with the PCR and sequenced with the Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology. The acquired data is analyzed with bioinformatics tools in order to identify all species in the sample. The usefulness of this method in heavily processed products was confirmed by numerous publications in the past years. In addition, for samples where high species specificity is required, Q-PCR technology will be used. A modern detection system for the identification of fishery products will be based on the conservative nucleotide sequences of 16S rDNA. Researchers obtain such sequences on a daily basis, but caution is needed. Reliability of the results depends also on the technical skills of the researcher and the taxonomic expertise which is nowadays increasingly disappearing. Therefore, the reliable, faster and cheaper molecular tests that will greatly compensate for the lack of taxonomic knowledge and will be able to identificate species, even if this is not possible due to processing, are necessary. The development and implementation of such innovative molecular methods can be crucial for the further development of natural sciences in other areas such as evolutionary genetics, biology, pharmacy, human health, and food technology. Furthermore, the development of such molecular methods offer the possibility of commercialization and the expansion in the research laboratories where new technologies can be developed or new scientific findings can be emerged that could have a key influence on the modern science and on the development of the science in the future.
Significance for the country
Frauds in fisheries, aquaculture and processing are nowadays one of the key problems, because the demands to provide food for growing population are very high. Due to the overfishing, fishing in the EU and in developed countries is a highly controlled industry, since its restrictions are imposed by the  EC Common Fisheries Policy and by international organizations which control fishing. In recent decades, aquaculture production has exceeded catch and it is an extremely fast growing sector with an annual growth of 8 %, mainly in China. According to Interpol and EC findings, fishery products are in the third or second place regarding the number of frauds respectively. In addition, the illegal catch in undeveloped countries and outside the EC's controlled areas has been introduced into the supply chain. On the other hand, the frauds of fishery products are poorly researched due to less developed methodologies for detecting frauds and large number of fish species in the food processing industry. In Slovenia, there is a great interest in the food processing industry for developing of faster, cheaper and reliable methods that would be able to determine the origin and species composition of raw ingredients bought on the international market for further processing. In Slovenia and even before in Yugoslavia, we had a highly developed processing industry (ARGO, DROGA, DELAMARIS and some smaller processors), which was based on the caught from the Adriatic Sea by the Slovenian fishing fleet. Over the last decade, the processing industry completely depends on the raw ingredients from the international market due to the fishing fleet reduction. Some fish processing companies (DROGA; DELAMARIS) successfully sell their products on demanding markets outside Slovenia (e.g. Austria and the countries of the South-Eastern Balkan). In conversations with representatives of the processing industry, we observed that they have a great need for such knowledge and tests, since they do not have enough knowledge and technology to check the raw ingredients from the international market (tuna, salmon, mackerel in DROGA). Without this, they risk the purchase of a less quality raw ingredient, or even a raw ingredient that does not conform to the declaration. Moreover, they can be harmed and exposed to the risk of losing consumer confidence or this may cause direct financial damage. Due to these facts, there is a great interest in the processing industry to implement the project results and corresponding technology to everyday practice. In the past, state administration institutions have proved the need for additional tests to ensure the traceability of fisheries products (Inspection services, Customs ...). Currently, in Slovenia, the testing of the fish identification is carried out at the Veterinary Faculty, which operates under the authorization of The Administration of the Republic of Slovenia for Food Safety, Veterinary and Plant Protection (organization of Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food). The laboratory uses the COI barcoding method, which is suitable for fillets and other less processed products, while they do not have a method for identification of heat-treated and processed products. The proposed project offers solutions for such samples and the results will be available for routine testing. Developed molecular tests offer the possibility of commercialization, since they can be used by inspection service and commercial laboratories as a method to confirm the identity of the product.  Furthermore, inspections could become more frequent, which could help to reduce fraud and improve the traceability of fresh fish and fish products. In addition, the results of the project will also contribute to higher food security, which is the main guide of agricultural and food policies, with emphasis on local and sustainable supply. This is included in the priority area "Natural and traditional resources for the future" of the Smart Specialization Strategy
Most important scientific results Annual report 2019, final report
Most important socioeconomically and culturally relevant results Final report
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