Many eaters who were stunned by a recent study showing that farmed Atlantic salmon is frequently sold as wild Pacific salmon in Puget Sound area restaurants were equally surprised that the groundbreaking research was conducted by undergraduates.
"And not just undergraduates, but an introduction to biology class," says Erica Cline, assistant professor in the University of Washington Tacoma's environmental program. "This is their first exposure to science."
Cline's students obtained match head-sized salmon flakes from 105 restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores around Pierce County. Testing showed that 7 percent of salmon sold in stores--and a whopping 38 percent of salmon sold in restaurants--was mislabeled.
Since there's "not a ton" of funding for uncovering deceit among restaurants, Cline says much of the research designed to ferret out false fish in restaurants nationwide has been conducted by students. Other educators have contacted Cline to ask how to replicate her project with their classes.
The relative simplicity and affordability of modern DNA testing has made fish-tracking a feasible project for young scientists who once spent their lab sessions mounting hair on microscope slides and dissecting fetal pigs. And as technology continues to advance, civilians may soon be able to scientifically hold restaurateurs accountable for what they serve.
"I wouldn't have thought that five years ago you could spit in a cup and get your DNA coded," Cline says.
While Cline doesn't think a Star Trek-style device for instantly detecting farmed fish is likely to hit the market in the near future, she says patient consumers armed with over-the-counter DNA kits could probably do their own seafood testing.
Cline's students extracted DNA from their samples, and then sent the information to a more sophisticated lab for processing. Cline gets an educator's discount, but estimates amateur researchers would pay $3 for the same service. If they wanted the lab to extract the DNA too, the procedure would cost an additional $30.
Still, Cline hopes eaters aren't forced to police their own plates.
"As it gets cheaper and easier, this can push regulators to take an interest," Cline says.
There's no single regulatory agency that's responsible for monitoring seafood labeling and identification, although the advocacy group Oceana believes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has primary authority in the fish-fraud arena. Oceana this year launched a campaign to fight the widespread practice of incorrect labeling, which they claim is damaging the environment and unfairly duping consumers.
"We don't expect people, when they're ordering meat, to have to guess whether it's beef or horse or whale or Grade A prime or dog grade," Oceana's chief scientist told the Washington Post. "And yet with fish, where there are many more choices, we do the exact opposite."
The FDA plans to use DNA testing to verify seafood imported by companies with histories of mislabeling fish, and is now developing a DNA seafood library that will eventually allow anyone to check DNA sequences.
The system is based on the same "Barcode of Life" initiative that Cline used to shape her study. Students initially experimented with a chemical process that was supposed to distinguish between farmed and wild-caught salmon, but had better luck isolating a gene which reveals a sample's species. Cline is quick to clarify that the DNA method her students used doesn't indicate whether a fish was raised on a farm.
"We'd look at the species and infer," she says, adding the prohibition on commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon makes it highly unlikely that any Atlantic salmon was wild-caught.
Cline worries her project may be a victim of its own success. Restaurant owners freely contributed salmon for the project, showing a generosity she doubts they'll demonstrate again.
"We may have gotten too much publicity for this to work," Cline says.
Still, Cline says, salmon isn't the only food deserving of study.
"We could switch over to truffles," she says. "Who knows what we'll go after next?"