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Your quarterly business update – Winter 2017

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CFIA scientists seek the Barcode of Life

Three caricatures of scientists working with test tubes. There is a graphic of a DNA strain running through the centre of the image.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is what makes each person and species unique. It's that double helix that your genes are made of. It's why you resemble your parents and it distinguishes you from everybody else.

Imagine a world where all living things could be identified through DNA extraction and sequencing.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), along with national and international partners, has been working on just such an initiative. It's called the Barcode of Life, and it's being led by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. The Institute is located at the University of Guelph, the birthplace of the use of DNA barcodes.

Using a very short gene sequence, species can be identified similar to the way a barcode is used at your local grocery store. The mission of DNA barcoding is to ultimately catalogue every living species in the Barcode of Life Database.

In January 2016, Canada's Minister of Health announced a federal government investment to support the Barcode of Life, with the CFIA contributing $323,000 over 18 months to support scientific collaboration with Guelph's Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

Access to the Barcode of Life would help to verify any given species' DNA and assist the CFIA with regulatory enforcement. For example, the Agency would be better equipped to detect food fraud by verifying types of fish and seafood for sale that may have been misrepresented. When the label on the package says "cod," the fish inside should be cod.

The CFIA would also be able to identify invasive pests that threaten Canadian agriculture and forests faster than before.

"This technology is an absolute game changer," says Cameron Duff, Executive Director of the CFIA's Plant Health Science Directorate.

Stacked Deoxyribonucleic acid trays with barcode stickers labelling each separate species
Stacked DNA trays with barcode stickers labelling each separate species

Invasive insects can cause extensive – even catastrophic – damage to Canada's crops and forests. The problem is, many pests – such as hungry bugs and the eggs they lay – can look alike. Right now, specimens are most commonly identified visually, by looking at their shape, size and colour.

"Rather than having to send an egg mass to an entomology lab, which could take months to get the sample to a stage where it could be identified, DNA barcoding could compress the process down to days," says Mr. Duff.

CFIA research scientist Dr. Delano James agrees. "I think this is very powerful technology that could allow the identification of a potentially harmful insect pest without needing a fully developed or intact specimen," he says.

Invasive species are most commonly spread by cross-border movement of products. DNA barcoding could set more efficient reliable practices for regulators when determining the presence of species that pose a risk.

Trade would also benefit. One common way that pests are introduced to new countries is through wood packaging moving across borders. When there is a quick and certain identification of a species, trading partners are better able to agree upon regulatory approaches required. One challenge stems from the consistency of species identification among trading partners. Delays or misidentification of invasive species can cause issues between trading partners, ranging from unnecessary trade restrictions to the introduction of an undetected invasive species.

Employees across the CFIA's laboratory network are working together to develop and test the technology. Projects such as the Genomics Research & Development Initiative, Quarantine and Invasive Species project, and the Genomic Applications Partnership Program, have all contributed to improving existing methods and giving new capacity to speed up species identification processes.

Along with the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, CFIA employees have also connected with such federal partners as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada, as well as international players. The goal is to obtain as much data as possible from across the globe, including areas such as Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Region, North and South America – with all partners working towards international integration and adoption of the Barcode of Life approach.

"The CFIA is founded in science and we are proud to be part of this leading edge research project. The work could substantially reduce the risks to our plant and animal resource base and benefit food regulation. I look forward to what the future brings and truly believe that investments in this work will ultimately reduce the cost of, and improve, plant and animal health protection and food regulation," says Duff.

Partnership in Science: the barcode of life

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Did You Know?

Ask CFIA recently received a Golden Scissors Honourable Mention from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). CFIB judges commented that Ask CFIA was providing just what business owners were looking for: responsive and consistent customer service. Now that's golden! To get answers to your regulatory questions Ask CFIA.

Consultation and Engagement Opportunities

Consultation is a key activity of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). It supports open and transparent government. A number of consultations are underway over the course of winter 2017, including the proposed Safe Food for Canadians Regulations, cost-recovery, food labelling, among others. We encourage you to have a look at the complete list of consultation and engagement opportunities, become informed and have your say.

Questions or Suggestions

If you have questions about regulatory requirements or other technical questions regarding your business, visit Ask CFIA.

If you have questions about one of the articles in The CFIA Chronicle or would like to suggest an article for a future edition, email: CFIA-Modernisation-ACIA@inspection.gc.ca

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