Lamb, beef or chicken? 30min test promises to identify mystery meat

2 min read

Concerns over meat traceability could be allayed with a 30 minute test being developed by AltraTech, an Irish company that has raised €900,000 for its single-use portable semiconductor test kit.

Funding for AltraTech comes on the day that the UK Food Standards Agency announced an additional programme of priority testing of lamb dishes from British takeaway restaurants following evidence of on-going substitution of lamb with cheaper meats such as beef and chicken.

The disposable DNA diagnostics kit – dubbed BeadCAP - uses standard digital CMOS semiconductors, which company CEO Tim Cummins said circumvents issues associated with gold or platinum chips, such as manufacturing difficulties, or lack of availability in production foundries. It also greatly reduces the current two-to-five days required to obtain results, a timeframe that can incur costly quarantine or recalls.

‘This is the Achilles heel of most other attempts at electrochemical detection of DNA over the years,’ he told The Engineer via email. ‘Capacitance sensing with standard digital CMOS chips is much simpler, and more amenable to high accuracy, high volume, and low cost.’

Cummins said AltraTech is in the process of developing the system in the lab with three test tubes, magnetic beads, dual-specific primer reagents, and a silicon chip capacitive detector.

‘No expensive optical or PCR [polymerase chain reaction] equipment is needed, we are not doing any DNA amplification,’ he said.  

The end user – anticipated by Cummins to be anyone from big food processors, retail outlets, consumers, or R&D labs that require quick DNA test results on-site - puts a meat tissue sample (raw or cooked) in the first tube, and follows assay steps over approximately 30 minutes.

Cummins said: ‘The digital CMOS chip then identifies and quantifies each DNA type in the sample, in a multiplex detection against reference DNA probes of lamb, chicken, beef, horse, pork, and fish.

‘Being DNA based, our test is more sensitive and specific than protein-based food-species-ID kits on the market today. And it can’t be fooled by partial cooking which kills the proteins – overcoming another problem with today’s older protein tests.

‘The chip detector is [currently] plugged into a USB in a laptop, so results are immediately available on screen, and can be uploaded to a central data base.  Future smartphone and wireless versions are on our roadmap.’

Funding announced today comprised a €650,000 investment by Kernel Capital, with the remaining funds provided by Enterprise Ireland and company promoters.  

Cummins said that the device, which is currently lab-based, will be further developed and tested over the next 12 months.

‘We’ll then face a choice, whether to commercialise initially for retail outlets and end users, as a hand-held microfluidic single-use disposable cartridge - or as a 96-well automated high throughput version for food-processors to use on-site,’ he said. ‘We’ll eventually do both, but will be heavily influenced by customer feedback and future A-round investors.’

Looking ahead, the company anticipates serving a global market with a product that is programmable and can be used with any well-known off-the-shelf DNA marker probes.

‘And it works with viruses too, basically anything with DNA or RNA content,’ said Cummins. ‘BVD [Bovine Viral Diarrhoea] virus in newborn calves is an area we’ll also trial.  Animal health overlaps directly with our overall agri-food business strategy.’