Vancouver Sun: UBC student to be awarded for inventing new method of detecting contaminated food

Yaxi Hu will accept the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation in Ottawa on Monday for her work with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to detect Sudan I, a cancer-causing food dye. She is also working on detecting domoic acid, a common toxin that affects clams and mussels.

But Hu believes her method can be used to find nearly any adulterant because of her unique approach to detection.

Rather than go looking for specific contaminants — there are hundreds or even thousands that require individual tests — she is creating a library of spectrographic “fingerprints” from clean samples to compare with potentially adulterated food. A food sample containing anything out of the ordinary would result in an easy-to-detect, deviant fingerprint.

Recent estimates place the cost of food fraud at up to $40 billion worldwide and dangerous adulterants have sickened thousands. More than 300,000 people were made ill after melamine, a chemical used to produce plastic, was added to milk powder in China in 2008. Four children died.

Another Chinese melamine contamination incident in 2007 resulted in the death of 104 dogs and a pet food recall in Canada and the U.S.

With the growth of international trade in food, a local contamination issue can quickly become a global catastrophe, Hu said.

Current methods used by government laboratories to analyze food are usually accurate but complex, time consuming and labour intensive, she said. They also tend to miss previously unknown contaminants.

“Official methods targeted at specific compounds might fail to detect the new adulteration behaviour using other compounds,” Hu said. “Spectrographic methods (make) the detection of a new type of food fraud feasible.”

Hu used a solid-state NMR spectrometer nearly the size of a room to reliably detect Sudan dyes in culinary spices. The dye makes the product look brighter and fresher.

The focus of her ongoing research is to find a portable or bench-top device to test food in the field, beyond the lab.

“By creating a faster, simple and highly effective testing platform, we can help to avoid tainted products from entering the food supply altogether,” she said.

Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that partners with companies, government and academia to promote Canadian research.

-Randy Shore, Postmedia Network