Twelve thousand packs of adulterated coffee that did not match quality standards were seized in Brazil. The coffee was not labeled correctly, and in addition contained foreign matter, such as bark and wood. This investigation is part of a larger operation that altogether seized 15 tons of adulterated coffee, which contained corn, did not adhere to quality standards, and was packaged with a counterfeit purity seal.
Food fraud, also known as the intentional adulteration of food for economic gain, is described as a criminal act that in some cases can have a significant impact on consumers, honest producers and societies. The perpetrators utilize loopholes in the surveillance, investigation, enforcement and prosecution of food fraud. A recent publication describes the anatomy of eight example food fraud scandals in the UK to enable investigators to understand, track and prosecute complex fraud cases more efficiently.
Vanilla is one of the most popular and expensive flavoring ingredients, used in ice cream, dairy, beverages, baked goods and more. Its smooth, warm taste and ability to enhance other flavors make it a sought-after element in cooking and baking worldwide. Insufficient natural sources, impacted by adversary weather events, are unable to keep up with an increasing demand. As a result, what is labeled as “pure vanilla” is occasionally adulterated with ingredients that are not derived from vanilla beans, but either synthetic or made from other plant or even animal sources. In the case of on Australian retail company, the vanilla extract was mislabeled as “pure” with a picture of vanilla plant parts shown on the label, misleading consumers. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission issued a hefty fine after two infringement notices.
Eleuthero root and root extract are used for herbal over-the-counter medicinal supplements with anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, energy boosting and antioxidant properties. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian Ginseng, can be adulterated by adding Eleuthero aerial parts, the use of alternate species of Eleutherococcus or by declaring Periploea sepium (Chinese Silk) as Eleuthero. Variances in nomenclature in different parts of the world contribute to adulteration and mislabeling. The use of correct Latin names and comparison to authentic botanical material, as well as analytical methods to authenticate Eleuthero, for example, DNA barcoding and spectrometric methods, help to avoid that fraudulent Eleuthero products show up in medicinal supplements.
Australia’s agricultural and food sectors are significant contributors to the economy. To protect Australia’s reputation as a supplier of high-quality items, producers along the supply chain now have technologies and tools available to mitigate fraudulent food products. This report from Deakin University lists fraudulent practices, and in addition mentions technical solutions for all steps along the supply chain. The report suggests to improve fraud documentation, authenticity testing, DNA barcode reference databases and more, and points out an urgent need for a more concerted effort in the Australian food industry overall.
The ongoing pandemic, food fraud, food insecurity, supply chain disruptions and shortages, maintaining and fostering a robust food safety culture, and foodborne illness outbreaks kept the food industry very busy last year. Looking ahead to 2022, these challenges will continue, but many food companies are becoming better at forecasting and course correcting. During a recent interview with Food Safety Tech, Waylon Sharp, vice president and chief operating officer at Bureau Veritas, discussed trends affecting food safety this year, along with how companies should respond to incoming challenges.
Food Safety Tech: What challenges did food companies face in 2021 and how can they apply their lessons learned in the new year?
Waylon Sharp: Supply chain disruptions were a big challenge for food companies in 2021, as much of the North American food system is reliant on production or raw materials from international locations. This theme will continue into 2022, as logistics become more costly and challenging from a labor perspective, food companies will naturally gravitate to exploring alternatives. This shift in supply will increase the need for verification of product quality and safety of new suppliers. In addition to, or alternatively, some producers may choose more local options to reduce delays and increase stability of supply.
FST: What are the key trends impacting food safety in 2022?
Sharp: This year we’ll see food safety impacted by sustainability, consumer preferences and health and wellness:
Sustainability: Connecting with a purpose will be a key driver for both attracting new customers and enticing top talent to join food organizations. All aspects are critical, including sourcing raw materials, the packaging used, and minimizing the CO2 footprint in production and logistics. Consequently, I suspect there will be bad actors that see the advantage of appearing to be responsible but not doing what they say. Services that hold these organizations accountable will likely continue to grow.
Consumer Preferences: Migration to hyper-local, community supporting businesses can be directly correlated to the COVID financial fallout. Buying local helps support the areas we reside in, and this trend will likely persist. The feel-good support should also result in fresher product with less supply chain challenges for consumers.
Health & Wellness: Sustainable, plant-based products are expanding in prevalence. Traditional meat alternatives witnessed an increase in volume and new entrants such as seafood alternatives also grew in consumer acceptance. I expect more to launch in 2022 to meet the rising demand for healthy and environmentally conscious alternatives.
FST: What technologies will play a role in helping food companies tackle their biggest hurdles this year?
Sharp: Technology will continue to play an important role in the industry this year. Additional automation and digital tools to manufacture, assess food quality and safety, and distribute food are all likely to grow. Staffing challenges will continue to impact those highly manual production environments and the more work that can be performed without human intervention will gain favor over labor-intensive functions. In addition, remote audits and inspections allow for an experienced individual to assess a situation without traveling and being present on-site to limit human contact.
In all of human history, adulteration and fraud followed closely in the footsteps of new products, and herbs, spices and drugs are no exception. Even 2000 years ago, Pliny the Elder described adulteration. In ancient Athens, inspectors monitored the authenticity of wine. Scientific methods were first applied by Archimedes, and started to be utilized more by the end of the 17th century. In the 1850s, heightened public awareness and the demand for higher product quality raised anti-adulteration movements and increased enforcement.
Spices and herbs are sourced at a rate of 300,000 tons into the EU from places around the world, and fraudulent activity can happen in any steps along the supply chain. The European Commission’s control plan investigated nearly 2,000 samples of herbs and spices commonly targeted for fraud, such as oregano, cumin, turmeric, paprika, pepper and saffron, and found oregano to be the most manipulated, usually by the addition of olive leaves. Overall, the rate of 17% fraudulent products was down compared to other studies.
The production methods for high quality olive oil are well defined, but fraudsters use a multitude of ways to produce fake premium olive oils and charge steep prices for mediocre or even dangerous products. From false declaration of origin, blending with lower quality olive oils or other vegetable oils, second centrifugation of olive paste, deodorizing, to false labeling claims, this study lists several common fraudulent practices. Olive oil keeps making the top of the list of frequently adulterated foods, but meanwhile is also one of the most highly tested commodities.
Consumers are increasingly requesting food and beverages to be authentic, especially when it comes to wine and its concept of terroir. Lambrusco wine has a Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) status—only wine that is grown in these specific regions in Italy can be labeled Lambrusco. In this study, chemical and isotopic compositions were used to determine geographic origin. Specific boron, strontium and lead isotopes can be used to determine climate conditions and plant localities, translating into geographic locations of origins of food and beverages.
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