FDA pushes DNA barcoding system adoption

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is pushing adoption of its DNA barcoding system, which identifies individual fish species, in an effort to solve the species substitution problem in the United States.

The system creates DNA barcodes to identify individual fish species, a project the agency defines as “massive”. There are thought to be 30,000 species worldwide, and about 1,500 are sold commercially in the United States.

“As we run out of the most popular fish types, the number of species harvested is expected to increase,” the FDA said. “That in turn will likely lead to more confusion about what's being bought and sold.”

If successfully rolled out, the project’s impact could be huge. In studies done by the NGO Oceana, more than half the fish at restaurants in certain cities have been mislabeled; and consequences for seafood operators are significant. One owner of an Illinois seafood distributor was fined $100,000 and sentenced to five years’ probation for mislabeling fish, notes the FDA.

At this point, the FDA has trained more than 20 FDA analysts around the country to create ways to identify unknown fish species. Inspectors with equipment and know-how can now create a barcode for fish and compare it against the FDA’s database to seek a known match.

However, more work is needed to get the program off the ground. The FDA is currently collecting samples of fresh fish for testing.

FDA research biologist Jonathan Deeds attends fishing tournaments and seafood conventions to ask for for donations of fish for testing in the agency’s lab in suburban Maryland; while Jeffrey Williams has led three expeditions to markets in the Philippines. He collects nearly a thousand fish to be used by the FDA for species testing, and the FDA has contracted the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Fisheries and Laboratories of Analytical Biology for to help name species and store fish.

The Smithsonian already has the world's largest fish collection, started in the 1800s. However, modern genetic tests cannot be performed on fish stored using standard museum practices of preserving with formaldehyde.

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