In a sign of technology advances in the field, work that previously took over an hour can now be done in seconds on samples of meat, milk, plants and wine.
It will open up new opportunities for food science and industry, AgResearch senior research scientist Dr Alastair Ross, who leads the metabolomics platform, says.
The technology is so accurate it can differentiate New Zealand, English and Welsh lamb using a measurement taking only few seconds.
It can also detect what feed, such as grain, grass or chicory, a carcase was reared on, an increasingly important issue driving consumer spending.
“This type of concept is heading toward a future where you could, for example, scan a glass of milk with your mobile device to not only find out where, when and how it was produced but also whether that milk fits your taste profile.
“We think this will be a major opportunity for the NZ food sector where worldwide supply chains are coming under increasing scrutiny and consumers are increasingly engaged in what they eat.”
Food marketers can use AgResearch’s REIMS (Rapid Evaporative Ionisation Mass Spectrometer) machine to provide quality assurance and potentially be incorporated into blockchains to give chemical and digital traceability to prevent food fraud.
Generating robust data on provenance and quality could save NZ millions of dollars through early detection of quality problems and prevention of false labelling, Ross said.
“We’re also finding that we can link the fingerprint to other factors such as consumer liking so in the future it can be possible to ensure that NZ agricultural products are not only guaranteed in terms of provenance and quality but also will go to the market which best matches their desired flavour profile.
“Mass spectrometry has been around for decades but AgResearch was among the first in the world to use a REIMS specifically to look at food quality.”
Genetic improvements have already made a major difference to improved production and disease resistance in NZ agriculture.
“Now we want to enable selection to be based on both genetics and environmental factors, to use a systems approach, to reach the next level of improvements in production, quality and sustainability.”
The REIMS vaporises products using an electronic surgical knife and measures resulting vapour using mass spectrometry techniques. The REIMS was expensive and had to be based in a laboratory but instruments using similar concepts are becoming more affordable and portable, Ross said.
At the current rate of progress the technology will one day become common in abattoirs, dairy processing plants and on farms.
“I’ve seen systems which have been designed for the US military and they’ve been designed for a lance corporal to be able to use in the field and detect if there have been explosives used in the area. So, basically, it’s suitcase-sized.”
Most of AgResearch’s work with REIMS so far has been with meat, detecting differences in meat based on breed and location.
It is early days for dairy sampling but the lab has already found answers to common consumer questions like whether branded products are actually made of the same milk.
“We did a small scale test, which basically involved me going to the local New World and getting as many kinds of milk as possible.
“And you could see clearly that there are a number of differences.
“We could see some really interesting stuff around cream and UHT processing and we were able to work out that Pams and Meadowfresh are exactly the same.
“We could not differentiate and we got told later on that’s because it’s the same product.”
At a broader level AgResearch’s metabolomics platform plans to compare milk from different species.
“And just in a very small test we did, they’re a world apart.
“So, it helps you really drill down and from a scientist’s perspective it helps you really understand what’s the difference between bovine milk and ovine milk and goat milk as well.”
The REIMS was the first of its type to be used in the food industry in Australasia and if manufacturers want to contract AgResearch to run tests it will be open to discussions, Ross said.
“At the end of the day we’re looking at people to partner with us for more research-type projects, especially in the dairy space, seeing what it can and can’t do.”
After studies in NZ and Sweden Ross worked for several years at the Nestle Research Centre in Switzerland as a research scientist and project manager and at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, setting up a metabolomics lab focused on food and nutrition.
See the REIMS machine in action at https://vimeo.com/340251207/7367c5e18b