The alarm bells have been sounding for a long time, but only in the past few years have consumers, regulators, and companies started to wrestle seriously with the problem of food fraud.
Chalk it up to the melamine-laced baby formula that killed at least six Chinese infants in 2008 and sickened nearly 30,000 others. Or maybe it was last year’s hamburger scandal, when regulators discovered that horsemeat had slipped into hamburger patties sold all over Europe, one of the world’s most highly regulated markets.
Just last month, fast-food purveyors McDonald’s and KFC apologized for using tainted meat in the meals they served Chinese customers. The acknowledgment came after a Chinese television report revealed that workers at a supplier for both franchisers had been mixing out-of-date meat with fresh meat and putting meat that had fallen on the floor back on the processing line.
High-profile cases may be sprouting up, but food fraud has gone on for years mostly without detection and sometimes with the participation of criminal organizations. For instance, forensic food scientists have detected adulterants such as water, whey, and soybean oil in milk. They have also detected less expensive oils such as hazelnut, sunflower, soybean, and walnut where they should have found only olive oil.
Food fraud detectives count on scientific instruments to help them track down adulterants. And because of the spate of high-profile food fraud cases, instrument and test kit makers see a growing opportunity to provide their equipment to governments and the food industry. Yet critics insist that more needs to be done throughout the food supply chain to keep the problem of fraud at bay.
“Food fraud is huge,” says John Spink, director of the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University. Although “the vast majority of incidents do not have a public health threat, every food fraud incident is a public health vulnerability,” he says. Food fraud includes the addition, substitution, and mislabeling of product ingredients for economic gain.
Europe’s horsemeat scandal exposed several shortcomings in the ability of government and industry to fight food fraud, according to Spink. “How would we trace a routine food safety concern for that horsemeat incident last year?” he asks. “We didn’t even know it was in there, let alone how to trace it.” Only after the scandal broke did food scientists think to test for phenylbutazone, a painkiller used in horses but which can be toxic to humans. Fortunately, none was found.
Indeed, every time an unexpected adulterant comes along, companies and regulators scramble to find new test methods, only to ease off once the story has moved on.
Qiagen, a maker of DNA amplification testing kits and equipment, dutifully developed a test for horsemeat in early 2013 after the scandal broke. Demand for the test kits was heavy at first, recalls Sandra Luley, senior global marketing manager for the firm’s applied sciences unit. But today, she says, it has slowed down. “We still see some testing for horsemeat, but it is not routine testing,” she says.
Demand for tests that detect known health and safety pathogens—such as Salmonella, Listeria, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter—is much greater than for the so-called speciation tests that address the fraud issue, Luley says. She estimates the size of the global food safety testing market at about $2 billion per year. Speciation testing is only about a $100 million business, she says.
But Spink, along with other food industry watchers, is looking to the day when regulators and food processors embrace methods to proactively scan all sorts of food for both known and unexpected contaminants. Spink and others hope these new methods will be part of a larger government-endorsed effort to cut down on criminal attempts to profit from food adulteration.
SOURCES: U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention Food Fraud Database, C&EN
Just getting a handle on the size of the food fraud problem is no easy task. A 2004 study for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing some of the world’s largest food and beverage makers, estimated the annual cost of food fraud at about $15 billion.
More recent estimates are several times higher, but all such numbers are just stabs in the dark, points out a spokeswoman for the World Customs Organization, which coordinates fake food seizures globally. “No one knows the real dimension of the fake problem as it is very difficult to accurately assess illicit trade,” she says.
Still, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests fake food is a real and everyday problem. A survey of 1,215 fresh-caught fish samples from 674 retail outlets in the U.S. found that 33% were mislabeled. Oceana, the conservation group that conducted the study, found that 84% of samples labeled as tuna were actually escolar, a fish that can cause digestive problems for some people who eat more than a few ounces.
Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, supervised the collection of fish samples for the 2013 study. She sent them to the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding. There, the mitochondrial DNA sequences of the samples were compared to reference sequences known as the “barcode of life,” a broad database of DNA sequences developed by scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
Right now, Warner says, little information exists on where seafood is caught and how it gets to market. So much fishing on the high seas is unregulated and unreported, she says, that Oceana is worried that fish stocks won’t survive.
Government agencies have noted the food fraud problem and found organized crime involvement. Operation Opson, an Interpol-coordinated series of customs raids in 33 countries earlier this year, intercepted 1,200 metric tons of substandard food and 430,000 L of counterfeit drinks.
The operation was meant to stanch a “threat to public health and safety by organized criminal networks,” said Michael Ellis, head of the international police agency’s counterfeiting unit.
However, food fraud still isn’t a high priority for regulators. U.S. Customs & Border Protection seized just $200,000 worth of fake foods last year—the bottom of a list of $1.7 billion worth of goods seized by the customs agency. Fake handbags and wallets topped the list with $700 million worth seized last year.
Customs isn’t ignoring food, but it scans only a small number of imports that raise border agents’ suspicions. The agency operates eight analytical labs across the U.S. The Newark, N.J., lab has 32 full-time staffers, of whom four are dedicated to food testing, according to Laura Goldstein, the lab’s director. They work with liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry, ultraviolet-visible (UV-Vis) spectrometers, DNA bar coding, and other analytical technology.
During the melamine scare, the Newark lab scanned for the presence of the adulterant in baby formula and pet food, Goldstein says. More recently the lab turned up mislabeled fish and identified pork and beef in supposedly vegetarian tomato sauce and soup mixes. “In my opinion,” she says, “sometimes importers are fooled by suppliers.”
Christopher Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, argues that efforts to cut back on food fraud haven’t been strong enough. When government and industry intercept adulterated foods, they often do not find and punish the perpetrators.
After the horsemeat scandal, the U.K. government commissioned Elliott to conduct a study on ways to address the food fraud problem. His preliminary report, issued at the end of last year, recommended that the government establish a new food-crime unit with the ability to deal with “complex food crime … perpetrated by highly organized and dangerous organized crime groups.”
“Food crime is the elephant in the room that everyone has ignored for a long time,” Elliott said at a March press conference sponsored by scientific instrument maker Waters Corp.
Of the 48 million people who get sick each year from food-borne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, just 20% of those illnesses can be traced by the agency to known pathogens, Elliott noted. Of the 80% remaining, he asked, “how much is due to criminal activity?”
Experts at the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, an organization that sets public health standards, suggest a way to find out. Today most food testing scans only for known potential contaminants, such as melamine in milk, explains Jeffrey C. Moore, senior scientific liaison at USP. “With adulteration, you never know what’s going to happen next,” he notes.
Regulators and food processors need a way to “find irregularities they would otherwise miss,” Moore says. USP advocates “fingerprinting” foods using tools such as near-infrared (near-IR) and Raman spectrometry or low-field nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. A sample would be compared with a standard, and any deviation in results from normal expectations could then be investigated further, Moore says.
In addition, Moore suggests that food processors need to keep close tabs on food as it moves through distribution channels from farm to table. “You have to think like a criminal to identify fraud,” he says. Regulators and food processors need to focus on “the most vulnerable points” in food’s journey, he argues, and they need to focus on the most vulnerable ingredients.
The food giant Nestlé has already taken some steps in this direction. At 20 milk-processing facilities around the world, including one at its Shuangcheng factory in China’s Heilongjiang province, the firm has long used Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) analysis to verify the protein content of milk, according to John O’Brien, the firm’s head of food safety and quality.
After the melamine contamination scandal, Nestlé started to scan the milk at the Shuangcheng site for a variety of contaminants, including melamine, O’Brien told analysts last October at the company’s headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. Press reports had indicated low levels of melamine contamination from milk processed at the Shuangcheng site.
By expanding the FTIR scans to take a “rapid chemical fingerprint” of each milk sample, the firm has a tool capable of detecting and deterring the addition of potential adulterants, including melamine, O’Brien said. The Shuangcheng site now conducts 2,000 milk analyses daily using the FTIR technique, he said.
Other major food chain participants are also beginning to take fraud more seriously. In July, the board of the Global Food Safety Initiative, whose members include food processors and retailers, recommended that members perform food vulnerability assessments and have a fraud control plan in place.
Scientific instrument makers are aware of the food industry’s problems and are eager to offer solutions. They know that major food processors want to assure consumers that their products contain what the label promises. “Brand integrity is about consumer trust and can be as important as food safety,” says Ravi Ramadhar, product management leader for Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Thermo Fisher’s test kits, which use DNA amplification technology the firm acquired when it bought Life Technologies, can determine the horse, beef, pork, chicken, and turkey content in processed foods down to 0.01%. Because the tests give quick results, they can be used at multiple points in food-processing chains, Ramadhar says.
“Food fraud is a cat-and-mouse game,” says Dipankar Ghosh, food safety marketing director at Thermo Fisher. To outsmart fraudsters, scientists need to be able to test for just about any adulterant. Thus, the company is using its Orbitrap mass spectrometers to create libraries with thousands of spectra of known contaminants. Spectra, the fingerprints of adulterants, are intended to make it easier for food scientists to pick out threats quickly, Ghosh says. “Our emphasis is on finding the needle in the haystack.”
Near-IR and time-of-flight mass spectrometry (TOF MS) are rapid sampling techniques that can pick up irregularities in foods, according to Sharon Palmer, global applications strategy director for PerkinElmer. “The greatest challenge is to test for future threats,” she says. TOF MS has an advantage in that it can pick up a wide variety of chemical adulterants in foods at very low levels.
“We see customer demand increasing for techniques used to profile food,” says John Lee, food market manager at Agilent Technologies. Like USP’s Moore, Lee says profiling is the way to go to help scientists pick out unexpected variations in a food product or one of its raw materials.
Whereas LC/MS or GC/MS can detect adulterants on a molecular level, optical spectroscopy and NMR techniques are especially useful to fingerprint foods, Lee says. NMR use among food scientists is fast growing, he adds, because it is more sensitive than optical spectroscopy and “because new developments have allowed very fast analysis and ease of use.”
The instrument maker Bruker has developed NMR systems specifically intended to detect known and unsuspected adulterants, says Markus N. Link, a market development manager for the firm.
The JuiceScreener, developed with input from SGF International, a juice industry standards organization, can detect the addition of sugar and mixtures of juices where the sample is supposed to be of one type, according to Link. A similar wine-screening system is also available and one to analyze honey will come out soon, he says.
Although the tools to detect fraud are becoming increasingly sophisticated, they need to be adopted if they are going to put a damper on food fraud. “There is a near infinite number of fraudsters and a near infinite number of fraudulent activities,” says Spink, the Michigan State University food fraud expert. The penalties for fraudsters, should they get caught, he says, “are lower than for drug trafficking.”
In Spink’s view, food processors need to be more vigilant about auditing shipments and increasing quality controls, government has to go after the fraudsters, and analytical scientists have to develop full-spectrum tests that take many factors into account. “We’ll only be able to reduce food crime by increasing the risk of getting caught,” he says. ◾
U.S. study found that, on average, 33% of seafood samples aren't what they claim to be.