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23 Feb 2023

Alumni Series - Tracing the Roots of Food with Stable Isotope Analysis

    Our alumnus Dr Colin LUK and his business partner founded this quality assurance company isoFoodtrace, using stable isotope analysis to trace the roots of what we eat.

    Our alumnus Dr Colin LUK and his business partner founded this quality assurance company isoFoodtrace, using stable isotope analysis to trace the roots of what we eat.

    Food has always been fundamental to human life, connecting people to their roots, culture, and memories. As globalisation increases and food fraudulent concerns mount, tracing the journey of food from farm to table has become increasingly important. Faced with these challenges, two visionary PhD graduates from The School of Biological Sciences founded IsoFoodtrace, a company utilising stable isotope analysis, a food traceability technology, to provide a reliable and efficient platform for tracking food products’ origin and journey.

    IsoFoodtrace verifies food product attributes and labels, enabling unparalleled assurance in global food systems. By directly testing end products, their fast and cost-efficient methods allow consumers to know exactly what they buy. Let us explore the pioneering journeys of these young entrepreneurs driving unprecedented assurance in our food systems.


    Dr Colin Luk and Dr David Baker. 

    Dr Colin Luk and Dr David Baker.

    Meeting during their PhD studies in 2014, Inga CONTI-JERPE investigated coral nutrition using stable isotope analysis while Colin LUK studied forest recovery using Arthropods indicators. At that point, Colin had over ten years of F&B experience with concerns about food origin. He recalled, ‘I discussed using stable isotope analysis to detect food fraud with Inga, and we both think it’s doable. At the same time, HKU iDendron had just initiated a start-up SEED program while Science Park offered a 100K start-up grant—it seemed a good opportunity for us to build a start-up.’ With the support of Dr David BAKER, the Director of HKU Conservative Forensic Laboratory, and the consultation from Dr Jetty LEE, the Programme Director of the HKU MSc Food Industry: Management & Marketing, they piloted testing supermarket wild salmon and wrote a business proposal for funding, enabling them to launch IsoFoodtrace, a real business tackling food fraud. 

    Empowering Consumers to Make Informed Choices

    Dr Colin Luk at the Stable Isotope Laboratory of HKU

    Dr Colin Luk at the Stable Isotope Laboratory of HKU

    Stable isotope ratios vary with food attributes like farming practices, feed, and origin. For example, wild salmon has more 15N (Nitrogen) than farmed, and cattle feed diets (grass vs grain) affect 13C (Carbon) ratios. Using Stable Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry, foods are chemically analysed and isotopes measured. Once the stable isotope signatures have been detected, they are then compared against a reference database; hence, the origin and composition of a food sample can be determined. This cutting-edge technology can ensure food safety and authenticity, giving customers peace of mind..

    In just two years, IsoFoodtrace has grown to a team of 11. In the long term, it aims to build a global food stable isotope database enabling verification of production and origin claims. Colin said, ‘We aim not only to battle fraudulent claims of food quality but also to contribute to better food safety and sustainability by allowing businesses and consumers to make more informed purchases.’ Through their innovative approach to food tracing, they have revealed the complex processes involved in food production and distribution.

    Though now relocated to the US, Inga continues working with Colin to grow the business, she said, ‘Food safety is of paramount importance in today's globalised food systems. By tracing the roots of food, I hope we can eventually empower consumers to make informed choices and holds businesses accountable for authentic claims.’

    As consumers, we can all play a role in supporting their efforts by seeking out products that have been verified and demanding greater transparency in the food industry. By doing so, we can help to build a safer and more sustainable food system for all.


    Dr Colin Luk

    Dr Colin Chung-lim LUK

    • PhD in Biological Sciences
    • Project Development Lead@isoFoodtrace



    Dr Inga E. CONTI-JERPE

    • Scientific Development Lead@isoFoodtrace
    • Biological Researcher at University of California, Berkely