FSU professor receives USDA grants to help develop food safety tests

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Qinchun Rao, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences in the FSU College of Human Sciences. (FSU Photography Services)
Qinchun Rao, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences in the FSU College of Human Sciences. (FSU Photography Services)

A Florida State University researcher has received two grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop tests that will uncover adulterated or contaminated foods.

“These projects will protect against contamination of the food supply that may cause wide-scale public health harm,” said Qinchun Rao, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Science. “They’ll also help ensure that consumers get the products they think they are paying for.”

Rao will develop an easy-to-use test that can detect whether a food contains shellfish, a potentially fatal allergen for some people. Rao also will collaborate with Xiaohu Xia, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Central Florida (UCF), on a separate project to develop a test for the presence of adulterated meat.

About one-third of food recalls in the U.S. are because of misbranded or undeclared allergenic food residues. Unknown shellfish or meat might be present in food products because of accidental cross-contamination, or they might be added intentionally in place of another, more expensive ingredient. Consumers eating adulterated food might be paying extra for a tampered product, inadvertently violating religious dietary restrictions or eating something to which they’re allergic.

In the shellfish project, Rao’s team will purify four major shellfish allergens from shrimp and crabs and develop tests for those allergens.

“The long-term goal of this project is to provide a robust diagnostic tool for the enforcement of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act in order to prevent cross-contamination of shellfish allergens in foods,” Rao said. “There’s a need for tests that are reliable but also convenient to use and inexpensive.”

As part of the project to test for adulterated meat with UCF, Rao’s lab will analyze the test strip built by Xia to determine its effectiveness. The team will improve upon existing technology that uses gold nanoparticles to detect meat proteins. Preliminary results have shown that adding a coating of platinum, palladium or iridium to the gold nanoparticles makes the test more sensitive. The researchers will continue their work to improve the testing procedure by using other metals in the nanoparticle coating.

The goal is to develop tests that are sensitive, easy-to-use and affordable, which would make them useful tools for deploying on a wide scale to find cases of adulterated food.

“The success of this project will be of great benefit to fighting food fraud by providing a simple, paper-based test strip for the rapid and sensitive detection of animal-derived adulterants in foods,” Rao said. “A newly enacted intentional adulteration rule requires mitigation strategies for processes in certain registered food facilities, and this project will help meet that requirement. In addition, these new methods being developed may open up new approaches for the food industry and the food regulatory authorities in the future.”

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) projects 2020-03475 and 2019-05845. A grant of about $474,000 will fund the shellfish project, and a $490,000 grant will fund the development of a test for adulterants derived from animals.

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