Student sleuths using DNA reveal zoo of 95 species in NYC homes — and new evidence of food fraud

By | January 3, 2010

Do you know what you are buying at the market? Are you sure?

Two New York City high school students exploring their homes using the latest high-tech DNA analysis techniques were astonished to discover a veritable zoo of 95 animal species surrounding them, in everything from fridges to furniture, from sidewalks to shipping boxes, and from feather dusters to floor corners.

Guided by DNA “barcoding” experts at The Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History, Grade 12 students Brenda Tan and Matt Cost of Trinity School, Manhattan, also revealed a lot of apparent consumer fraud in progress, finding that the labels of 11 of 66 food products purchased at local markets misrepresented the actual contents.

The January edition of BioScience magazine will report on their “DNA House” project, detailed as well online at

Among other things, Tan and Cost also found an invasive species of insect in a box of grapefruit from Texas. And the duo might get to coin a Latin name for what could be a new species or subspecies of New York cockroach revealed by DNA barcoding.

The work builds on the 2008 “sushi-gate” findings of two other Trinity School students, Kate Stoeckle and Louisa Strauss, who found one-quarter of fish they bought at markets and restaurants in Manhattan were mislabeled. Some labels hid endangered fish species but most misrepresented cheap fish species like tilapia, sold as expensive species like tuna. Now second-year university students, Kate and Louisa will address the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Buyer beware – but how?

The new barcoding study by Tan and Cost uncovered additional examples and types of “mislabeled” food products:

* An expensive specialty “sheep’s milk” cheese made in fact from cow’s milk;

* “Venison” dog treats made of beef;

* “Sturgeon caviar” that was really Mississippi paddlefish;

* A delicacy called “dried shark,” which proved to be freshwater Nile perch from Africa;

* A label of “frozen Yellow catfish” on Walking catfish, an invasive species;

* “Dried olidus” (smelt) that proved to be Japanese anchovy, an unrelated fish;

* “Caribbean red snapper” that turned out to be Malabar blood snapper, a fish from Southeast Asia.

While not publicly identifying the products or retailers involved, the students do offer opinions.

“You should get what you pay for,” says Cost, 18. “We don’t know where it occurs, but most of the mislabeling involves substitution of something less expensive or desirable, which suggests it’s done for profit.

via Student sleuths using DNA reveal zoo of 95 species in NYC homes — and new evidence of food fraud.

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