The company's seafood species DNA identification method is based on taxonomically validated reference material from museums across the US.
Taxonomic validation is visual identification to determine a fish's species by a taxonomist (a scientist specializing in species identification).
Validated reference database
AFT uses a validated reference database to ensure the DNA sequence of the species is compared to that of a taxonomically confirmed reference standard.
The firm graduated from the UF/Sid Martin Biotechnology Institute's Program for start-up companies last year. It was founded in 2000 and entered the incubator in 2010.
The graduation means it is a stand-alone company and the firm has acquired space in Progress Park, the North Central Florida center for business and innovation.
LeeAnn Applewhite, founder and president of AFT, said working in the institute's incubation program was the best environment to develop and commercialize its technology.
“My academic training and work in the food science arena was specific in seafood. I fell in love with the industry and knew it had more issues - it was at the time when we started to import more,” she told FoodQualityNews.
“We do molecular diagnostic development which started with multiplex PCR for species that require a quick yes or no answer. There is a lot of work with canned products and the old protein methods were not specific enough.”
Diagnostic capabilities include Sanger sequencing, creating specific primer probes and RT PCR and turnaround for species ID is four to six days.
“We find out what is needed in the seafood and aquaculture industry and what is not available we look to develop,” said Applewhite.
“Seafood is our specialty but we have done other food commodities, for example we designed primers around horse meat. We got calls and developed a RT PCR assay to detect meat, chicken, poultry.
“The difference is there are limited species that can be substituted in this case but there are 30,000 different species of fish. It is a smaller industry but more complex as far as molecular species ID and fraud are concerned.”
AFT has been doing species identification for a decade and clients include federal and state agencies, distributors, retailers, grocery store chains and restaurants.
The firm has worked with the seafood industry and regulatory agencies to develop and refine diagnostics used in testing services for seafood species identification.
AFT looks at species identification and economic fraud, food safety (testing sushi for puffer fish) and fisheries management (checking if yellowfin tuna is actually bluefin, which skews data).
“Recently, 90% of sushi white tuna was actually escolar which can cause gastrointestinal issues in completely healthy people and puffer fish was found labelled as monk fish,” said Applewhite.
“Misleading information can occur out of any point in the supply chain. We see imported seafood [from Latin America and Asia] as a problem as that is mostly what we test.
“Consumers are concerned as they don’t know where to go for assistance. Consumer groups want restaurants and stores to have letters of authenticity for seafood products. But it is a lower priority than pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.”
Puffer fish can contain tetrodotoxin which is a potentially deadly toxin. Monkfish do not contain it.
Tetrodotoxin is not destroyed by common preparation or storage, such as cooking or freezing.
AFT also has a sensory programmme, shelf life studies on retail ready products and is expanding its species ID programme to look at net and portion weight, added moisture and other parameters seen as consumer fraud.
Mark S. Long, director of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Institute, said: "The institute's substantial resources assisted AFT in bringing their technology innovations in molecular science to the marketplace."
The Sid Martin Biotechnology Institute has facilitated the launch and acceleration of more than 60 companies that have garnered over $1.6bn in venture capital and revenues.