Anyone out there planning a gripping documentary on food fraud would do well to shadow the detective work of Interpol and Europol’s “Operation Opson,” a series of European supply chain investigations first prompted by the notorious Horsemeat Scandal of 2013.
During the eighth phase of Opson, by early 2019, investigators ended up seizing “more than €100 million ($113 million) worth of potentially dangerous food and drinks,” making hundreds of arrests.
It is a regulatory and policing legacy that looks set to endure. For those tied up in “horsegate” itself, the aftershocks for consumers and companies alike were devastating and persistent. As the online consultancy Food Fraud Advisors recalled, “events in the European food industry took on the appearance of collapsing dominoes: first was the withdrawal of 10 million burgers by Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores and Iceland in the UK. Tesco lost £300 million ($378 million) in market value overnight. In the following weeks, Asda also removed tens of thousands of products from its shelves; Tesco and Aldi extended their withdrawal from burgers to ready meals; Waitrose withdrew meatballs because of fears they might contain pork; regulatory authorities raided slaughterhouses in Yorkshire and Wales; the scandal spread to France, and multiple arrests were made on both sides of the English Channel.”
Saving olive oil’s virginity
And this is just one occasion where contamination, whether inadvertent or intentional, has damaged the credibility of the food industry. Last December, Europol pursued Spanish clam sellers who had illegally poached what proved to be poisonous seafood; the clams contained traces of Norovirus genogroup I and II and Hepatitis A. Elsewhere, other signs of hefty reprisals came just a few weeks ago when a Dutch court found two companies liable for the toxic fipronil scandal that severely damaged confidence in the egg industry. The same reputational damage can taint olive oil producers, with the New York Times claiming a few years ago that “much of the extra-virgin Italian olive oil on the market is not Italian or virgin,” mostly due to rampant adulteration overseen by an “agro-mafia.”
So, how can companies ensure that their beef is beef; their clams are untainted; their pro-biotic yogurt has the right microbes in it; or their olive oil is not just virgin, but extra-virgin? One answer: Better testing technologies.
In Europe this week, two early-stage companies working in this area disclosed to AFN that they had received funding, each promising novel ways to ward off contamination and guarantee food integrity — Hyris in Italy and the UK, and SwissDeCode in … well, the name kind of gives that bit away.
“Our technology would have prevented horsegate,” said Hyris CEO and co-founder Stefano Lo Priore, speaking to AFN by phone. “Genetic tests are ideally suited to do this.”
Series A funding for Hyris
Astanor Ventures, a Brussels-based impact VC firm specializing in investing “where tech meets nature,” led the round, with Italian investors like NEOS Medica, Idb Holding, and Pi Campus joining.
What is unique about Hyris’s integrated platform for DNA testing? Not the ability to test, it turns out; that technology already exists and can happen in all manner of centralised labs. Instead, Lo Priore believes the breakthrough comes from his firm’s ability to make these tests “miniaturized,” providing lab-quality data that is far faster, more convenient, and “goes toe-to-toe” on accuracy. Further, Hyris uses AI to automate much of the expert interpretations of the results, rendering them decipherable to someone using the device without specific scientific training.
Investors tend to be pretty careful around these sorts of claims. Some of that caution is the legacy of a spectacular unicorn implosion — that of the fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos. (There were, in fairness, many specialist investors even at the time who avoided that investment because it was always too good to be true.) So, one investor at Astanor said the team had taken extra time over the technical aspect of due diligence, a more challenging feat once Covid-19 lockdowns befell Europe.
Hyris’ detection system relies on what it calls its distributed network of “bKITS” — bespoke sets of reagents for specific DNA sequences. Think of these reagents as whistleblowers; when the DNA you are looking for appears, the reagent blows the whistle by reacting. There are many known reagents already, drawn from an existing library of chemicals. Hyris has developed bCUBE, a miniaturized portable device, to contain and analyze these reactions. The bKITS and bCUBEs are manufactured in Italy, and Lo Priore says he has around 100 corporate clients using his platform already.
“I call it an Easy Bake Oven,” said a scientist behind the design — Professor Steve Newmaster, a plant biologist at the University of Guelf in a news release describing its practicality for a range of functions. For now, Hyris has sought to find a use for this technology in the nutrition sector. But there are other clear use cases in adjacent fields like the pharmaceutical industry, especially for virology and epidemiology. The company has been working with Johns Hopkins University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on providing in-field testing kits for viruses like Zika and Malaria. And in recent weeks, given the scale of the current pandemic and the scramble for reliable testing, Hyris has adapted its features to test for the presence of Covid-19 pathogens using World Health Organization compliant reagents.
Still, George Coelho of Astanor Ventures believes maintaining a core focus on food remains key for Hyris. “With as much as 10% of all foods we consume tainted by adulteration, there could be no better time to disrupt the market and create a healthier, more trusted food system,” he said in a statement sent to AFN.
EIC grants €2.5m to SwissDeCode
Other attempts to simplify and decentralize testing come from startups like SwissDeCode, a biotechnology company based in Renens, Switzerland. This week, the firm has been awarded a €2.5 million grant from the EU in the first cohort of the new EIC accelerator “Enhanced Pilot”, which received 3,969 applications. From these, 181 projects were interviewed, and 72 were successful, meaning SwissDeCode was among the top 2% of European deep tech startups applying for this program.
The aim, according to a note sent by EIC, is for the grant to support the development of “an automated device that will help food companies detect and react faster to contamination and adulteration, without the need for a laboratory or specialised personnel.”
The device, which will be operated directly by the company’s staff and does not require any laboratory equipment, analyses food samples and aims to provide ISO certified results in just 30 minutes, saving time and resources from delays.
SwissDeCode’s technology is focused on DNA detection.
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