Meat with no mystery

With recent scandals in the meat industry prompting consumers to call for greater accountability from suppliers, companies such as Maple Leaf, are looking for new ways to ensure that their products are exactly what they claim to be. This quest brought Maple Leaf to Trent and more, specifically, to Trent University’s DNA lab to look for solutions.

Vythegi Srithayakumar, a postdoc in Trent’s Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre works with Maple Leaf on a DNA traceability program for their meat products.

“We have the ability to extract so many samples using our robots in a short period of time, and the ability to automate everything on a large scale,” says Srithayakumar. “If industry wants us to test thousands of samples within a short period of time we can carry it out.”

Srithayakumar’s fellowship is jointly funded by Maple Leaf and Mitacs, an organization that creates alliances between private companies, government and academia.

The Mitacs fellowship fits perfectly with Srithayakumar’s goals to work in the private sector.

“I like finding answers to real questions,” she says. “When you are into pure research, you don’t get to see the results being applied right away. With the research I’m doing for Maple Leaf, I’m doing it at the same time as I’m having to apply it, and that’s what drives me.”

Maple Leaf’s Director of Emerging science says he appreciates the timeliness of Srithayakumar’s research.

“The recent European horsemeat scandal has focused the need for traceability and accountability right through to the final product on the consumer’s plate,” says John Webb. “The recent order-of-magnitude reduction in the cost of high-throughput DNA testing now makes this a practical possibility to ensure the integrity of products and build consumer confidence.”

Webb says the choice of partner was clear.

“Trent University is a world leader in the development of DNA technologies to track and protect wildlife.  We are thrilled and excited to have this opportunity to move closer to the group through the Mitacs fellowship.”

The partnership helps Srithayakumar build  industry contacts and apply her academic skills in a real-world setting.

Each month, Research Matters presents a daily series of blog posts based on a theme. This month’s theme is “Your Health.” Some of these stories have appeared previously in university publications. They are edited for brevity, clarity and style, and republished with permission here.

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How rising temperatures affect ...

Sharon Oosthoek | February 4, 2016

Starting around the mid 1900s, Canada's northern and Arctic areas have seen some of the largest temperature increases in the world — up to 4 C in some cases. As climate change turns up the heat in the North, Indigenous populations, particularly Inuit, are grappling with significant health effects, says the University of Guelph's Sherilee Harper, an eco-health researcher who works with Indigenous communities. "A one degree temperature change can mean the difference between stable and unstable ice," says Harper. "That's important for people's ability to hunt for food, which affects their physical and mental health." Harper says while the consequences are significant, her research suggests communities have a built-in resilience that is too often ignored. "Climate change will have an impact everywhere," says Harper. "It's already affecting the North and we can learn a lot from Inuit wisdom as they adapt. Their ingenuity is amazing." Location, location, location Most Inuit communities in the Arctic are located along the coast on small, rocky outcrops of land surrounded by vast amounts of water. In the summer, people use boats as their main source of transportation. In the winter, when the water turns to ice it forms a highway that links often road-less communities together, while also shaping new hunting grounds. But the “in-between time” can be dangerous travelling. That's when water is a slushy combination of solid and liquid, and people can't trust its stability. Rising temperatures in the North mean these conditions are more common than ever before. Forced to stay put, Inuit are physically inactive and have less access to food, says Harper.  Grocery stores — where a turkey no bigger than a soccer ball can cost more than $200 — are few and far between. Those who do venture out when the ice is unstable do so at their own risk. The possibility of drowning or injury not only affects their own physical and mental health, but the mental health of those left at home to worry over their loved one's safety, says Harper. "There have always been safety concerns, " she says. "But in the last 20 years, changes in temperature have been bigger and more difficult to predict." Word of mouth In an effort to deal with this uncertainty, some Inuit communities have begun posting online photos and videos of unsafe parts of established routes. "They are building on their oral culture and increasing the availability of information," says Harper.  In fact, oral traditions that highlight information-sharing are a crucial part of climate change adaptation in the North, says Harper. That became clear while her team searched for solutions to repetitive problems that were identified during a study she conducted with Inuit in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. The team found heavy rainfall and snowmelt — a more common occurrence as temperatures rise — are followed by significant increases in visits to the local clinic for diarrhea. The connection is fairly simple, says Harper: "Heavy rainfall and snowmelt washes E. coli and other bacteria into the water. If people drink brook water after it rains, it can make them sick." The answer, developed by local high school students, was also simple: radio ads warning people not to drink brook water after heavy rain or snowmelt. While people in the community follow a longstanding tradition of drinking fresh brook water, students urged them to temporarily turn to treated tap water. "Inuit are natural adaptors," says Harper. "Sure climate change is a huge challenge, but they are resilient."

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Sharon Oosthoek | February 1, 2016

In February 2008, Derek Mueller flew over the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf off the coast of Canada's Ellesmere Island, warily eyeing the enormous cracks along its edge. The Carleton University researcher studies the impact of climate change in frozen parts of the world and was visiting the area's ice shelves to gather data about the changes he and his team had observed via satellite. "When we saw the cracks, we thought, 'Wow, those are really big. It's a sign of things to come,'" recalls Mueller. read more »
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Araina Bond | January 25, 2016

At the age of 85, Henry Becker still enjoys playing the violin and his ability to hear the nuances of the music is partly thanks to his daughter’s research. Sue Becker, along with colleagues from McMaster University's Intelligent Hearing Aid Group, has developed a technology that completely changes the way hearing aids interact with our ears and brains. It is a project spanning 15 years and several disciplines, with contributors from the university's departments of psychology, and computer and electrical engineering. read more »
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Jessica Shapiro | January 19, 2016

People have been preserving food for centuries — from flash-freezing fish in Inuit villages to pickling vegetables on the farm. But we have yet to come up with a surefire way to keep preserved food safe for human consumption. Every year, about four million Canadians suffer from food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella. As recently as 2008, an outbreak of the listeria bacteria in some packaged Maple Leaf meat products led to 57 confirmed and 23 suspected deaths. read more »
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Jenny Hall | January 13, 2016

Nobody wants bark. Even in the context of healthy trees harvested by the forestry industry, bark is considered waste. In sawmills it’s either burned — inefficiently — for heat after the rest of the tree has been processed or simply thrown away. Where everyone else sees waste, Ning Yan of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Forestry sees opportunity. “If you look at bark from a chemical composition point of view, it’s very good,” she says. “Bark offers protection to the tree. It has unique antifungal and antioxidant properties. It contains components and chemicals we can use.” read more »
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