In 2008, melamine was added to milk and infant formula to increase its protein content. This led to the hospitalisation of around 54,000 infants, 6 deaths from kidney stones and, ultimately, a number of criminal prosecutions, resulting in 2 executions.
In 2013, horsemeat was found in burgers and ready meals sold in UK supermarkets. Although not physically harmed, consumers – who thought they were eating beef – were less than happy. The incident highlighted the vulnerability of the food supply chain and Tesco, one of the supermarkets selling the adulterated meat, underwent – €300 million drop in market value.
Also in 2013, statistics revealed that although only 1,700 tonnes of expensive Manuka honey from New Zealand was harvested each year, global sales were as high as 10,000 tonnes, indicating widespread fraudulent selling of ordinary honey as the expensive Manuka version.
More recently, 19/78 samples of dried oregano purchased in UK and Irish supermarkets were found to contain other ingredients, such as olive and myrtle leaves, at levels ranging between 30% and 70%.
These are not just isolated incidents. Between 15th December 2014 and January 2015, Operation Option IV, a coordinated venture by Interpol and Europol, seized more than 2,500 tonnes of counterfeit and illicit foods, including mozzarella cheese, strawberries, eggs, cooking oil, and dried fruit, from 47 countries. Food fraud is estimated to cost the global food industry $10-15 billion per year.
What is Food Fraud?
There is no single, global, statutory definition of food fraud. According to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), which estimates that approximately 10% of food on UK supermarket shelves is adulterated, food fraud is committed when food is deliberately placed on the market for financial gain, with the intention of deceiving the consumer. The FSA goes on to say that the two main types of food fraud are: the sale of food that is unfit and potentially harmful, and the deliberate mis-description of food.
Databases and Regulations
Data sharing is believed to be a key component in the fight against food fraud. The FSA has a national food fraud database to detect emerging patterns of fraudulent activity and to act as a resource for local authorities conducting investigations into food fraud incidents. The US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has a searchable online database, which acts as a repository for food fraud reports and associated analytical detection methods. An extract of the information in this database is also published in the Food Chemicals Codex.
Also in the US, the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) EMA (economically-motivated fraudulent adulteration of food ingredients) incident database has been documenting incidences of food fraud since 1980. It provides information about the food product, adulterant, type of adulterant, health consequences, and how the incident was discovered.
The FDA and the USDA are the primary US agencies with the statutory authority to regulate and prevent food fraud. In addition, the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) contains several provisions that can be applied to food fraud.
EU agri-food chain legislation does not include a definition of food fraud or specific mechanisms to counter it. However, a number of initiatives have been taken to improve the ability of member states to identify fraud as early as possible. In 2015, the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system was established to improve cross border communication and cooperation in order to deal with food fraud.
In the UK, the FSA runs the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), whose aim is the identification and mitigation of food crime threats to consumers worldwide.
Unfortunately, deliberate fraud and adulteration of foods by companies that manufacture them is widespread, as is accidental adulteration due to negligence. However, reputable food companies realise that fraud and adulteration are major problems that can lead to big profit losses, and fraud mitigation strategies are now considered to be essential.
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is an industry-driven collaborative platform whose aim is the advancement of food safety: it requires food producers and distributors to address food fraud, particularly economically motivated frauds that can cause food safety hazards, and has identified two key areas for food fraud mitigation: vulnerability assessment, and food fraud mitigation plans.
In the US and Canada, the Produce Traceability Initiative, which is sponsored by trade associations, aims to implement case-level electronic traceability in the fresh produce industry; while on the other side of the Atlantic, the Italian Farmers Confederation have launched a new anti-fraud super label to certify 100% Italian extra-virgin olive oil, consisting of a numbered and coded seal that sits on the neck of the bottle.
Fraud Detection Techniques
Meat fraud is globally widespread and can take many forms. During 2014, local authorities in the UK tested 665 samples of pre-packaged meats for adulteration. 44 of these samples gave unsatisfactory results, including steak and lamb burgers containing undeclared pork, and products labelled as goat meat that were actually sheep meat.
In 2015, more than 100,000 tonnes of smuggled frozen meat was seized from commercial units in China; some of it was decades old. Bulking up of ground meats with vegetable based fillers is another common problem.
Scientists have developed a wide range of techniques for detection of meat adulteration, including: a lab-on-a-chip multiplex PCR platform for detection of pig, dog, rat, cat, and monkey meat in various commercial meat products; a rapid multiple reaction monitoring MS procedure for identification of myoglobin peptides from beef, pork, horse, and lamb; a PCR method that revealed the presence of soybeans and chicken meat in mislabelled premium burgers; PCR techniques for the detection of dog meat in chicken nuggets and cat meat in burgers; and identification of a DNA marker that could be used to identify pork from the protected designation of origin (PDO) Cinta Senese pig.
Extra-virgin olive oils are particularly vulnerable to fraud and adulteration. In 2015, it was revealed that 7 of Italy’s best known olive oil producers were under investigation for the mis-selling of virgin olive oil as its higher quality counterpart. As part of the investigation, 20 brands were tested by specialists from the Italian customs agency; 9 of these were found not to be extra-virgin. In addition, extra-virgin olive oil is frequently adulterated with other, cheaper oils, as well as poorer quality olive products, such as pomace olive oils.
Researchers have developed several techniques for identifying extra-virgin olive oils based on their geographical origin. For example, NMR and multivariate statistical analysis were used to identify and distinguish between different extra-virgin olive oils grown according to the Terra di Bari (Apulia, southeast Italy) PDO requirement.
In another study, UV-visual spectroscopy, electronic nose, and NIR were used to for the authentication of the PDO extra-virgin olive oil, Chianti Classico. 1H NMR data in combination with isotope abundance determination and statistical analysis led to improvements in the ability to distinguish between olive oils from different countries and PDOs. It was particularly effective for the identification of samples from Greece.
Other oils are also subject to fraudulent practices. Adulteration of hempseed oil with cheaper soybean, sunflower, and rapeseed oils was detected in a procedure that used a novel quantitative prediction and variable selection method called interval ridge regression (iRR) in combination with FTIR and UV-vis spectroscopy, and another study also used UV spectroscopy – this time for the authentication of non-transgenic and transgenic soybean oils.
Honey consumers are also victims of food fraudsters, prompting scientists to develop a number of experimental approaches to its authentication. As previously mentioned, ordinary honey has been frequently mis-sold as the more expensive Manuka variety. However, researchers have devised a method that could be used for rapid, on-site identification of genuine Manuka honey based on analysis of its leptospirin content by immunochromatography.
In other studies, NIR spectroscopy was used to detect adulteration of honey with high fructose corn syrup, an ELISA was developed utilising the royal jelly protein apalbumin1 as a marker for honey authenticity, and researchers in Croatia identified chemical markers that could be used for the authentication of unifloral Salvia officinalis (common sage) honey.
Ricotta cheese is sometimes fraudulently produced from cows’ whey despite claims that it is made using goat, sheep or buffalo whey. Scientists in Italy have devised an MS technique for detection of species-specific whey peptides derived from β-lactoglobulin and α-lactalbumin in the cheese. Other research has led to development of an NMR assay for detection of 5 adulterants (whey, urea, synthetic milk, hydrogen peroxide, and synthetic urine) in milk, and a method based on differential scanning calorimetry has been used to identify and quantify palm oil fraudulently added to butter.
Wine fraud can take many forms, including adulteration with cheaper ingredients, such as colourants, flavouring ingredients, and grape varieties less costly than those stated on the label. Scientists in Italy have developed a genetic technique for identification of table grapes in wine musts.
Another type of fraud is the deliberate filling of bottles with a cheaper vintage than that claimed on the label. A method has been devised that uses radiocarbon dating analyse tiny quantities of ethanol and other gases that diffuse through the cork to verify the wine’s vintage. This technique is non-invasive – it can be carried out without removing the cork and ruining a potentially expensive bottle of wine by exposing it to the air.
Organic Vs. Non-Organic Foods
Non-organic foods and beverages are frequently passed off as their organic counterparts. Fortunately, various procedures are being developed to distinguish between the two.
Researchers in Brazil devised an inductively coupled plasma-MS procedure with subsequent chemometric analysis to determine levels of 24 elements in grape juice samples. They discovered that contents of 7 elements were higher in organic than in non-organic samples, whereas the reverse was true for 2 other elements. Chemometric analysis was also employed to authenticate organic tomatoes by analysis of data obtained from combined proton NMR, mid-IR spectroscopy, and stable isotope analysis.
The Future of Food Fraud
As food supply chains become more globalised, food fraud is likely to increase. However, experts predict that tests such as those described above will become cheaper, more automated, and easier to perform; and that fingerprinting methods – in which not just the contents of a single component, but the entire molecular profile of a food can be obtained – will be a major feature of future fraud identification systems.
Hopefully, in the not too distant future, new analytical techniques, regulatory controls, and the global sharing of information will lead to the demise of the food fraudster
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