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ASC’s Trace Element Fingerprinting Shows Promising Results from Pilot Project in Vietnam

October 3, 2023

To help combat seafood fraud and ensure integrity in certified seafood, ASC continues to innovate and adopt the latest technology – in this case Trace Element Fingerprinting (TEF) coupled with artificial intelligence algorithms.

A proof of concept was successfully demonstrated based on reference samples from Vietnam, one of the world’s major aquaculture producers for shrimp. In 2022, ASC expanded the project to salmon farms in Chile.

Unlocking the Potential of Trace Element Fingerprinting

TEF, also known as elemental profiling, is a type of chemical analysis that measures the differences in the concentrations of trace elements that can be found in the bodies of all living organisms. The elemental profile or ‘fingerprint’ within an organism is the result of the trace elements present in the environment – the water, rocks and soil – where it lives, and the food that it eats. This fingerprint is therefore unique to a geographical location and can allow for discrimination between organisms that come from different places.

ASC, in partnership with specialist forensic chemists and artificial intelligence researchers, has been testing the application of TEF techniques to improve the ability to verify the geographic origin of ASC certified shrimp based on scientific analysis of the physical product, rather than document-based evaluation alone.

This involves analysing reference samples collected from ASC farms to develop a model based on differences between the inter-association patterns of trace elements in samples from different locations. The model utilises a heterogene fusion architecture of advanced bespoke artificial intelligence-based classifiers based on featurised statistical information from the inter-association patterns.

Such a reference model will allow ASC to test a sample collected from within the supply chain, for example a retail product, to determine its likely geographic origin without the need to build an ongoing database of reference signatures.

“This work involves developing an initial dataset of trace element profiles from reference samples of known origin and establishing a mathematic methodology that will allow use of this promising technique to verify origin of ASC certified products. While initially TEF can validate the country of origin for a species, we hope to expand this to allow verification at more specific geographic scales on a regional level or even at a farm level,” Wendy Banta, Head of Supply Chain Assurance at ASC said.

“TEF can greatly improve the assurance and integrity within ASC certified supply chains and identify, address and prevent potential seafood fraud, thereby increasing market confidence for ASC certified products.”

Expansion from Shrimp to Salmon

In 2021, ASC completed a proof of concept in Vietnam, which included three rounds of successful research on shrimp samples from Vietnamese farms. A key finding includes farm-level discrimination of samples by testing the ability to correctly assign anonymised samples to the farms from which they were collected. Other aspects that were explored included whether it is possible to use TEF to identify raw shrimp from different farms among samples that have undergone various processing and cooking treatments, and whether the part of the shrimp anatomy where the sample is taken from would impact the ability to correctly classify the sample to the collection region based on its TEF profile. Preliminary results suggested that the method is sufficiently robust to handle differences in processing and samples taken from different body parts, but this needs more in-depth analysis.

In 2022, ASC expanded the coverage of TEF from shrimp to salmon farms and began rounds of sample collection from Chilean salmon farm sites. Sampling efforts were successful thanks to a creative and flexible approach to accommodate the nature of salmon farming in remote areas.

“ASC is scaling up the TEF project in terms of geographical and species coverage to provide stronger assurance tools within the supply chain. Thanks to improved protocols and well-coordinated local sampling agents, we’ve collected 35 samples from five farms, owned by three salmon companies,” Banta said.

Continuous Research and Expansion to Provide Assurance

ASC aims to expand the range and scale of the application of TEF as an assurance tool in farmed seafood supply chains, by building on partnerships that bring complex and innovative ways to analyse TEF data.

The TEF profiles and resultant database derived from shrimp samples from certified farms have been used to show that advanced statistical analysis allows identification of samples down to farm level with a high degree of accuracy. In the future, ASC hopes to include further advanced mathematical classification methods and artificial intelligence to distinguish samples originating from different geographical areas, testing how various types of processing and cooking may influence the ability to successfully use TEF; and testing the use of TEF on other farmed species.

ASC continues its efforts to enhance programme assurance across the world. TEF is one of several tools which will be used to strengthen assurance, and this will be complemented by other approaches, such as such as digitally tracking key product data along the supply chain, to improve traceability.

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