Interview with Brij Sahi & Joana Gomes from SwissDeCode
Explore how rapid and portable DNA detection solutions are contributing to safer supply chains.
SwissDeCode provides rapid and portable DNA detection solutions that help customers detect contaminants and adulterants. SwissDeCode’s services and patented technologies have applications in the agriculture and commodity industry, animal feed and pet food industry, as well as the food and beverage industry, including milk and dairy products, meat and meat products, and food certification and monitoring.
At SwissDeCode, you provide rapid and portable DNA detection solutions that help customers in the food industry to detect contaminants and adulterants. Tell us more about the technology behind these solutions.
SwissDeCode's technology is built on leading-edge research undertaken at the University of Geneva. It amplifies trace amounts of DNA located in or on almost any food or surface where DNA strands may be deposited, without the need for a thermocycler or lab instrumentation. Simply stated, SwissDeCode’s technology allows a proprietary reagent to change colour in the presence of a specific DNA sequence. It is designed to detect targeted DNA in concentrations as low as 0.01% and can be adapted to customer sampling protocols.
How does tracking DNA in foods contribute to an all-round safer and more transparent supply chain?
Many of the current issues in food that lead to recalls can be detected by analysing DNA. For example, the presence of allergens, adulterants and contaminants. Companies can use DNA-based tests to ensure the quality of incoming raw materials or to guarantee that their final product is safe to be sent to the market.
In addition, DNA can be used as a barcode that traces the product back to its origin. In a project with Swiss DOP cheese, we developed a test that detects the DNA of marker bacteria, which is added to cheese by authorised producers. At any later stage in the supply chain, our test can be used to detect the presence of these markers, and assess whether the cheese is authentic or counterfeit. This can be adapted to other products and supply chains to ensure traceability and transparency.
One of your core services is the provision of customised rapid DNA detection solutions to cater to individual customers' needs. Share some insights from a recent project or case study. What problems did you tackle? And how were these solved?
One of our recent projects is helping cocoa farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast to detect a deadly virus that affects the cocoa plants, called Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV). These are the two largest producers of cocoa in the world, supplying half the world’s cocoa. But in Ghana alone, since 1946, more than 250 million trees have been cut out due to the disease. This greatly affects the farmers’ yield and earnings. Our test helps them to detect the disease early, before it spreads in the plantation, by providing on-site, real-time results and reducing the potential for losses.
How are SwissDeCode technologies being applied in the agriculture and commodity industries?
In addition to cocoa, SwissDeCode technology is being used in other areas, such as dairy. One of our off-the-shelf products that was just recently launched is helping the dairy industry to assess the purity of A2 milk. This is a relatively new type of milk that is considered to be more similar to human breast milk and easier to digest. Regular milk sold nowadays has a mix of A1 and A2 beta-caseins, but A2 milk comes from cows which produce the A2 beta-casein only. This milk sells at a premium price and therefore has the potential for adulteration. Our test helps farmers and milk producers to quickly assess if their milk is pure A2 or if it is mixed with A1 milk.
The scientific community established early on in the pandemic that Covid-19 was passed to humans from a wild animal at a market in China. This, in turn, led to a stark rise in international concerns about global wildlife trading. Can you describe some of these concerns? And in what ways can SwissDeCode's technology be utilised to help trace and identify wild plants and animals on international markets?
The trade of forbidden species is a serious problem which SwissDeCode has been aware of for a long time. Not only due to health concerns, as happened with Covid-19, but also due to ethical concerns about animal well being and species’ maintenance. In collaboration with Swiss Authorities, who were concerned about the import of products made from the hair and skin of a particular endangered species, we have designed a portable test that would allow them to test hair samples and detect whether or not they came from that species, whose trade is forbidden.
The portability and rapid results of our kits mean that they can easily be used at any wild animal and plant market to detect the trade of forbidden species. Besides this, SwissDeCode is also working directly in detecting the Coronavirus. With the support from EITFood, we are developing a device which will allow companies to test for the presence of the virus in food processing surfaces, allowing them to react quickly and to assure their trade partners that their operations are free from the virus.
EIT Food are currently searching for the 2021 cohort, following news that EIT Food has provided more than €10 million in direct financial support across its Business Creation programmes in 2020. Their support has helped entrepreneurs to grow and scale their impact faster – from help with market testing new ideas, providing access to experts, connections to corporate partners across the food industry, and support with investors. Last year, successful EIT Food startups raised more than €91 million in external investments as a result of the programme. Those that join the network benefit not only from easy-to-access funding and investment but also access to world-leading agrifood entrepreneurs, corporates and partners, such as Pepsico, Danone, Nestlé and Cambridge University.
Brij Sahi, Co-Founder and CEO of SwissDeCode, says: “EIT Food has enabled us to tap into some of the largest corporations in the world and to establish proof of concepts with them. This opportunity means we can directly engage with corporates and discuss on a one-to-one basis what we could do together.”