Swab in hand, Rena Shimizu lightly scraped a sample from a salmon fillet, dipped the swab in a tube of liquid and gently swirled it before setting it aside to briefly incubate at the Baltimore lab.
After a few more steps, the research scientist for InstantLabs inserted a vial with the fish's DNA into a small cartridge and snapped that into a portable device the size of a printer.
The machine, developed by the Baltimore-based diagnostic device company, can identify species of salmon, crab and other fish through DNA testing. It can determine the presence of pork or horse meat. It can detect E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens in numerous foods. Equipped with a touch screen, it can email or print out results — in less than two hours.
And best of all, say its inventors, at a time when concern is growing over fraud and contamination in seafood and other products, nonscientists in the food industry can use "the Hunter" to perform tests quickly at their own facilities, saving time spent sending samples to a lab.
"Someone with minimal training can get a device and start running this test," said Neil Sharma, chief scientist and vice president of product development at InstantLabs, based at the University of Maryland BioPark on West Baltimore Street. "You don't need a deep science background."
Food manufacturers throughout the U.S. already use the small company's device to test for bacteria, said Steven Guterman, InstantLabs' CEO. Now he also sees a broad and growing market for the Hunter amid mounting evidence of fraud and mislabeling in the seafood industry.
Just last week, the conservation group Oceana released a report finding that more than a third of the crab cakes tested at restaurants in Maryland and Washington used less expensive foreign crab instead of Chesapeake Bay blue crab as advertised. The group's tests at a number of Baltimore restaurants found 46 percent of crab cakes were mislabeled, confirming what many in Maryland's seafood industry had long believed about the level of fraud.
Guterman expects strong demand for the company's newly launched seafood identification tests, from processors, wholesalers, distributors and importers — anyone who wants to be sure of what's being bought and sold. Government agencies, too, he said, might be interested for routine tests or special investigations.
"We're definitely seeing interest, and we're having lots of good conversations," he said.
The fraudulent substitution of one seafood product for another has long been difficult to prevent or control, with government agencies typically more focused on food safety than on consumer fraud, said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
Sieling said he saw a demonstration of InstantLabs' Hunter recently at a seafood trade show and was impressed.
"It looks very interesting, like a great little piece of equipment," Sieling said. "I could see applications [by] companies that [would] use it to know what they're buying is what they think they're buying. A person buying large quantities of crabmeat and reselling to restaurants ... may want to have one."
He said he is not aware of other self-testing equipment on the market.
Seafood fraud, seen in Maryland as not only misleading consumers but cheating local companies and watermen, has drawn wider attention recently.
The Obama administration unveiled a plan last month to trace the origins of imported seafood and monitor its entry into U.S. commerce, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating crab imports into Maryland. Mislabeling can happen at almost any point in the harvesting, processing, distribution or final sale of seafood, Oceana has said.
Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Division are reviewing the need for a self-testing device.
"It's a matter of finding the funding and assessing the need for it," said Steve Vilnit, DNR fisheries marketing director. "I definitely think there is a market for this sort of thing as traceability becomes a bigger issue."
Founded in 2008, InstantLabs spent its first four years on research and development before getting certified through AOAC International, a Rockville-based global scientific standards developing organization, and beginning to sell products.
It employs 10 people and operates the BioPark lab as well as a smaller manufacturing facility in Catonsville. The company sells both the Hunter machines and kits for specific tests, equipped with vials, tubes and other materials.
"The thought process was to take a technology that is very common in laboratories and make it more accessible to individuals who don't necessarily have a heavy science background," said Guterman, a former Wall Street portfolio manager who invested in the company, then became CEO about three years ago. "We're bringing the test equipment to the end user."
After developing the machine, InstantLabs began creating food safety tests to detect salmonella, E. coli and listeria in dairy products, meat, vegetables and fruit. Seeing a demand for pork-free foods identified as halal, or lawful among Muslims, the company next developed a species identification for pork.
Last year, it added tests for Atlantic blue crab and is now expanding to Atlantic and coho salmon. The device maker plans to launch test kits later this year for sockeye and chinook salmon and is working on adding catfish, red snapper, grouper and tilapia to the list.
The first seafood-related customer was a private processor from Alaska, Guterman said.
"Their situation is classic," he said. "They were sending out their catch to a lab in Seattle" and waiting two to three weeks for results. "If you are sending something out, you clearly lose the amount of time for transporting the samples to the testing laboratory."
The company is private and would not disclose sales. It also wouldn't say what the equipment costs, other than to say Hunter and test kit prices vary and generally are less costly than using labs. The seafood testing kits have been developed in partnership with the University of Guelph in Ontario.
In a demonstration last week, Shimizu used a kit to determine whether a fish sample salmon in the lab was a DNA match for Atlantic salmon. The kits come with positive and negative controls, all color-coded, to ensure accuracy. A chart at the end of the experiment showed a positive result.
Guterman expects strong demand for that test in particular, which could show whether farmed Atlantic salmon is being passed off as wild-caught salmon.
Now, he said, "because it takes so long, there's very little testing being done. It's hard to put a finger on how much fraud is taking place. There's very little comprehensive data. In seafood fraud in general, indications are it's fairly common."
And Guterman suspects fraud occurs "up and down" the chain of supply and distribution.
"I think the larger demand [for testing] is going to come from differing points in the distribution chain," he said. "It's going to come from the industry wanting to validate that what they are getting is what is on the package."