A fresh take on food safety

Dr. Xiaonan Lu is helping keep the food industry accountable, while also ensuring that the safety and quality of food continues to improve, to the benefit of consumers
Xiaonan Lu

In an age of mass food production and distribution, McGill’s Food Safety and Quality Program has been working toward developing innovative ways to ensure safety in the Canadian and global food supply chain. And with forward-thinking researchers like Dr. Xiaonan Lu at its helm, the program is well on its way to fulfilling that mission.

Lu, the newly appointed Ian and Jayne Munro Chair in Food Safety and a leader in the field of food safety and food microbiology, is excited to shift the research he started seven years ago to McGill’s Macdonald Campus.

“McGill has a great reputation, a strong agriculture program and excellent agri-food research facilities,” says Lu, who joined the University on August 1. “Macdonald Campus is also not far from the downtown campus which allows me to connect with potential collaborators in engineering, chemistry and microbiology.”

The issue of food safety gained prominence a decade ago, following a series of large-scale cases of food-borne illnesses and outbreaks. These events gave rise to stricter North American regulations pertaining to food safety and prompted more extensive investigation into microbial contamination and traceability – enter Dr. Lu.

“My research focuses on using digital information to improve the traceability system in order to better monitor the entire food chain and improve food safety. The use of digital technologies like cloud computing, blockchain, 5G and sensors can help drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to identify the source of food-borne outbreaks caused by pathogenic bacteria like Shiga-toxigenic E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter.”

And Lu’s novel approach to traceability isn’t the only thing that makes his lab unique. His Post-Doctoral experience in analytical chemistry has equipped him with the skills to build and customize his own research instruments, some of which may have good potential for future commercialization. With such a diverse research program offering, it’s no wonder that his research team has also made its way east to continue to learn and work alongside him.

Past, present and future

Researchers like Lu are catalysts of change, using science to help keep the food industry accountable, while also ensuring that the safety and quality of food continues to improve, to the benefit of consumers.

The 2019 NSERC Discovery Accelerator Award winner garnered national attention in 2018 when a survey he conducted revealed the prevalence of food fraud in Vancouver’s seafood market.

“We did a very interesting study using a technology called DNA barcoding, which allowed us to determine the actual species of fish being sold in Canadian grocery stores,” he says. “Most consumers buy filets, so it’s easy for suppliers to substitute a cheap cut of fish for an expensive one – this is known as food fraud. Using molecular technology, we were able to identify that 25 per cent of the fish sold in metro Vancouver were actually mislabelled.”

And looking ahead, he has his sights set on more game-changing projects in the not-too-distant future, particularly in the area of food synthetic biology and cellular agriculture. “Basically, we are going to use innovative technologies to produce real animal meat in the lab, increasing food sustainability and reducing CO2 release produced by conventional agriculture,” he explains. “It should be an exciting next several decades at McGill.”

A lasting impact

With high demand and interest in food safety from both industry and government, the future of the Chair looks very promising, and Lu hopes that his passion and dedication to the field will have a lasting impact.

“Food science is an applied major and the goal is to use what we learn in the lab and apply it to the industry. Ultimately, I hope our work can contribute to the improvement of the food safety system in Canada and help make it a more resilient, stronger and safer agri-food system for all Canadian consumers.”