The nose knows: In case fish smells “fishy”, it is no longer fit for human consumption. A Canadian fish importing company pleaded guilty to the import of 9,000 pounds of rotten and partially decomposed fish into the United States. The potentially adulterated fish was sampled by the FDA, who declared it to be too spoiled to be sold in the country, hence refused its entry into the United States—but the fish was imported via a wrong shipment declaration anyway. The crime of importing refused food carries a prison sentence of up to a year.
The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in milk and dairy from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. For the past several weeks, Food Safety Tech has provided readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report. Next week will conclude this series.
In a large study of nearly 6000 products, more than a quarter (27%) of herbal medicines and foods sold in 37 countries on six continents was found to be deliberately or accidentally adulterated. In this study, the products, which came in a variety of forms such as softgels, tea and more, were analyzed with high throughput DNA sequencing and showed mislabeling, added fillers, substituted ingredients or contaminants. Such fraud can be a harmful to consumer health and safety, and must be monitored and tracked closely.
Ichim, M.C. (October 24, 2019). “The DNA-Based Authentication of Commercial Herbal Products Reveals Their Globally Widespread Adulteration”. “Stejarul” Research Centre for Biological Sciences, National Institute of Research and Development for Biological Sciences, Piatra Neamt, Romania. Frontiers in Pharmacology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.01227/full.
The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in fruits and vegetables from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. Over the past and next few weeks, Food Safety Tech will provide readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report.
Producers of food-based products are faced with challenges of maintaining the safety and quality of their products, while also managing rapid screening of raw materials and ingredients. Failure to adequately address both challenges can be costly, with estimated recall costs alone starting around $10 million, in addition to any litigation costs.1 Long-term costs can accumulate further as a result of damage to brand reputation. A vast array of methods has been employed to meet these challenges, and adoption continues to increase as technology becomes smaller, cheaper and more user friendly. One such technique is Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, an analytical technique that is widely used for quick (typically 20–60 seconds per measurement) and non-destructive testing of both man-made and natural materials in food products. The uniformity and physical state of the sample (solid vs. liquid) will dictate the specifics of the hardware used to perform such analyses, and the algorithm applied to the identification task will depend, in part, on the expected variability of the ingredient.
Infrared spectral measurements provide a “compositional snapshot”— capturing information related to the chemical bonds present in the material. Figure 1 shows an example of a mid-infrared spectrum of peppermint oil. Typically, the position of a peak along the x-axis (wavenumber) is indicative of the type of chemical bond, while the peak height is related either to the identity of the material, or to the concentration of the material in a mixture. In the case of peppermint oil, a complex set of spectral peaks is observed due to multiple individual naturally occurring molecular species in the oil.
Once the infrared spectrum of an ingredient is measured, it is then compared to a reference set of known good ingredients. It is important that the reference spectrum or spectra are measured with ingredients or materials that are known to be good (or pure)—otherwise the measurements will only represent lot-to-lot variation. The comparative analysis can assist lab personnel in gaining valuable information—such as whether the correct ingredient was received, whether the ingredient was adulterated or replaced for dishonest gain, or whether the product is of acceptable quality for use. The use of comparative algorithms for ingredient identification also decreases subjectivity by reducing the need for visual inspection and interpretation of the measured spectrum.
Correlation is perhaps the most widely used algorithm for material identification with infrared spectroscopy and has been utilized with infrared spectra for identification purposes at least as early as the 1970s.2 When using this approach, the correlation coefficient is calculated between the spectrum of the test sample and each spectrum of the known good set. Calculated values will range from 0, which represents absolutely no match (wrong or unexpected material), to 1, representing a perfect match. These values are typically sorted from highest to lowest, and the material is accepted or rejected based on whether the calculated correlation lies above or below an identified threshold. Due to the one-to-one nature of this comparison, it is best suited to identification of materials that have little or no expected variability. For example, Figure 2 shows an overlay of a mid-infrared spectrum of an ingredient compared to a spectrum of sucrose. The correlation calculated between the two spectra is 0.998, so the incoming ingredient is determined to be sucrose. Figure 3 shows an overlay of the same mid-infrared spectrum of sucrose with a spectrum of citric acid. Notable differences are observed between the two spectra, and a significant change in the correlation is observed, with a coefficient of 0.040 calculated between the two spectra. The citric acid sample would not pass as sucrose with the measurement and algorithm settings used in this example.
When testing samples with modest or high natural variability, acceptable materials can produce a wider range of infrared spectral features, which result in a correspondingly broad range of calculated correlation values. The spread in correlation values could be of concern as it may lead to modification of algorithm parameters or procedures to “work around” this variation. Resulting compromises can increase the potential for false positives, meaning the incorrect ingredient or adulterated material might be judged as passing. Multivariate algorithms provide a robust means for evaluating ingredient identity for samples with high natural variability.
Pet food is a highly profitable business. Global pet food sales hit a record $90 billion in 2018, and adulterated or mislabeled feed is not uncommon. In the United States, the FDA ensures correct labeling and adherence to quality standards in pet food. Over the course of six years, a processing facility in Texas shipped low quality, mislabeled ingredients such as feathers and by-products, labeled as premium single ingredients, to pet food manufacturers and distributors. The guilty party had to pay $4.5 millions in restitution to the fraud victims, and the defendant is on a five year probation.
Cinnamon is in high demand worldwide, with Ceylon cinnamon or true cinnamon (Cinnamon verum) the most sought-after and higher priced variety. It is therefore tempting to “cut” Ceylon cinnamon with cheaper cassia cinnamon. Previous detection methods for such adulterations included HPLC testing or DNA barcoding, which was time consuming and could only be applied by experts. New FT-NIR (Fourier transform near-infrared) and FTIR (Fourier transform infrared) spectroscopic methods in combination with multivariate analysis enable quick detection of cinnamon adulteration.
The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in poultry and poultry products from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. Over the next several weeks, Food Safety Tech will provide readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report.
Tea adulteration is a very common and recurring issue. Indian Officials, such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), keep seizing teas adulterated with artificial colorants and dyes. Tea dust and low-quality teas are adulterated by adding coal tar dyes, sunset yellow, tartrazine and other artificial colorants, some of them rendering the teas unfit for human consumption and endangering consumer health.
Food fraud usually does not make people sick, but we know that it can. Fraud in spices, and particularly lead adulteration of spices, appears to be getting more attention lately. Herbs/spices is one of the top five commodity groups prone to fraud, according to the data in our Food Fraud Database. Looking at the past 10 years of data for herbs/spices, chili powder, turmeric, and saffron have the highest number of fraud records and chili powder, turmeric, and paprika have the highest number of distinct adulterants associated with them (see Figure 1).*
Fraud in spices usually involves “bulking up” the spice with plant materials or other substances or the addition of unapproved coloring agents. A wide range of pigments have been detected in spices, from food-grade colors to industrial pigments, including lead-based pigments. Lead oxide was added to paprika in Hungary in the mid-1990s to improve the color, causing lead poisoning in many consumers. Lead chromate is another lead-based pigment that has been used to add color to spices. In 2017, ground cumin was recalled in the United States due to “lead contamination,” which was determined by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to be lead chromate.
However, there is also an issue with lead contamination of agricultural products due to environmental contamination and uptake from the soil. Therefore, when recalls are posted for spices due to “elevated lead levels,” it may not immediately be apparent if the lead was due to environmental factors or intentionally added for color.
Laboratory methods for detecting the form of lead present in food are challenging. Typical tests look to detect lead, but do not necessarily identify the form in which it occurs. Testing for lead chromate, specifically, may be inferred through a test for both lead and chromium, and recent studies have looked at the development of more specific methods. There is not currently an FDA-established guideline for lead levels in spices although, the maximum allowable level for lead in candy is 0.1 ppm (0.00001%). New York State recalls spices with lead over 1 ppm and a Class 1 recall is conducted with lead over 25 ppm.
Two recent public health studies have evaluated lead poisoning cases and have linked some of those cases to consumption of contaminated spices. One study, published earlier this year, analyzed spice samples taken during lead poisoning investigations in New York over a 10-year period. The investigators tested nearly 1,500 samples of spices (purchased both domestically and abroad) and found that 31% of them had lead levels higher than 2 ppm. This study found maximum lead levels in curry of 21,000 ppm, in turmeric of 2,700 ppm, and in cumin of 1,200 ppm.
Another study conducted in North Carolina looked at environmental investigations in homes and testing of various products related to 61 cases of elevated lead levels in children over an eight-year period. The investigators found lead above 1 ppm in a wide variety of spices and condiments, with some levels as high as 170 ppm (in cinnamon) and 740 ppm (in turmeric).
A separate study, conducted in Boston, involved the purchase and analysis of 32 turmeric samples. The researchers detected lead in all of the samples (with a range of 0.03-99.50 ppm), with 16 of the samples exceeding 0.1 ppm (the FDA limit for lead in candy). The paper concluded that turmeric was being “intentionally adulterated with lead” and recommended additional measures on the part of FDA to reduce the risk of lead-contaminated spices entering the U.S. market and the establishment of a maximum allowable level of lead in spices.
Although the above studies did not report the form of lead detected, the high level of lead in many of the samples is not consistent with environmental contamination. A newspaper report in Bangladesh indicated that turmeric traders used lead chromate to improve the appearance of raw turmeric and quoted one spice company as saying that some of their suppliers admitted to using lead chromate. Lead consumption can be extremely toxic, especially to children. There is evidence that lead contamination of spices in the United States is an ongoing problem and that some of it is due to the intentional addition of lead-based pigments for color. This should be one area of focus for industry and regulatory agencies to ensure we reduce this risk to consumers.
*Given the nature of food fraud, it is fair to say that the data we collect is only the tip of the food fraud “iceberg”. Therefore, while this data indicates that these ingredients are prone to fraud in a number of ways, we cannot say that these numbers represent the true scope of fraud worldwide.
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