In the European Union, extra virgin olive oils must be labeled with their geographical place of origin. The provenance of olive oil can now be verified with newly developed method involving the analysis of extracted sesquiterpene hydrocarbons via gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The method is highly precise and at the same time inexpensive. Sesquiterpene hydrocarbons are found in many live organisms and show characteristics based on olive tree cultivars and where the trees are grown, leading to a precise olive oil origin fingerprint.
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.
Canola oil, sunflower oil or soybean oil, colorants and low-quality olive oil, anyone? Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil adulteration is rampant, since the risk of getting caught is low and the profits are huge. A new expert-reviewed Laboratory Guidance Document on olive oil, published by the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP), lists a variety of laboratory methods at different levels of complexity, as well as the most common methods of adulteration. This Laboratory Guidance Document is an indispensable guide for regulatory and research personnel in the food, supplement and cosmetics industries.
Increased demand worldwide, supply that cannot keep up, and a product that is easy to fake makes an attractive setup for fraudsters to jump on the lucrative business of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Olive oil fraud is as old as olive oil itself, and it still flies under the radar because government agencies set priorities on what they consider more dangerous food fraud issues. EVOO is very simple to fake, and without laboratory tests, fraudulent oils often remain undetected. Fraudsters are not caught very often, and usually the existing laws do not severely punish such fraud.
Food forgery cases keep raising great concerns about consumers’ health and safety all over the world. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply in Brazil prohibited sales of nine brands of fake olive oil. A criminal organization sold soybean oil as extra virgin olive oil under fictitious labels. All oils sold under these brands are being pulled from the market and destroyed. Several Brazilian agencies were working together on this case, including the Consumer Protection Police (Decon).
The ninth OPSON operation, a cooperation between Europol and Interpol, included 83 countries around the world. OPSON IX targeted organized crime groups involved in food and beverage fraud. The substandard and fraudulent products potentially pose significant risk for consumers. Animal feed and alcoholic beverages made the top of the list of seized products, followed by grains, coffee and tea, and condiments. The officials also ran special campaigns to uncover fraudulent dairy products, olive oil and horsemeat.
Fraudulent olive oil made its way into the retail market in Brazil. More than 1300 bottles of product labeled extra virgin olive oil were seized, the oil was analyzed and found to be fraudulent. An investigation about the source of the adulteration and whether the fraud happened at the producer or in retail is still ongoing.
Due to extensive opportunities for fraud, the lack of an adequate monitoring system, cost pressures in the industry, and lack of transparency in the food supply chain, amongst other factors, fraudulent food products still pose a significant risk within the hospitality industry. A recent study discusses the food service food fraud vulnerability assessment (FS-FFCA), showing as an example that one-third of extra virgin olive oil samples at restaurants and catering facilities were adulterated. More tools are urgently needed to protect consumers and legitimate operations from illicit activities.
Honey is defined as “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees” from the nectar of plants. However, there is not currently an FDA standard of identity for honey in the United States, which would further define and specify the allowed methods of producing, manufacturing and labeling honey (there is, however, a nonbinding guidance document for honey). Some of the details of honey production that a standard of identity might address include allowable timing and levels of supplemental feeding of bees with sugar syrups and the appropriate use of antibiotics for disease treatment.
In circumstances where strict regulatory standards for foods are not available, they may be created by other organizations.
What Is a Food Standard?
A food standard is “a set of criteria that a food must meet if it is to be suitable for human consumption, such as source, composition, appearance, freshness, permissible additives, and maximum bacterial content.”1
To ensure quality, facilitate trade, and reduce fraud, everyone in the supply chain must have a shared expectation of what each food or ingredient should be. Public standards set those expectations and allow them to be shared. They help ensure that stakeholders have a common definition of quality and purity, as well as the test methods and specifications used to demonstrate that quality and purity. Public standards help ensure fair trade, quality and integrity in food supply chains.
How Is a Standard Different from a Method?
A method is generally an analytical technique to assess a particular property of the content or safety of a food or food ingredient. For example, methods for detection of nitrates in meat products or baby food, coliforms in nut products, or high fructose syrups in honey. Methods are an important component of food standards.
A food standard goes a step further and provides an integrated set of components to define a substance and enable verification of that substance. Standards generally include a description of the substance and its function, one or more identification tests and assays (along with acceptance criteria) to appropriately characterize the substance and ensure its quality, a description of possible impurities and limits for those impurities (if applicable), and other information as needed (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Anatomy of an FCC Standard (Source: Food Science Program, Food Chemicals Codex, USP)
A standard defines both what a food or food ingredient should be and documents how to demonstrate compliance with that definition.
Public Standards and Food Fraud Prevention
Many of the foods prone to fraud are those that are not simple food ingredients, but agricultural products that can be more complex to characterize and identify (such as honey, extra virgin olive oil, spices, etc.). Milk products are an example of a commodity that is prone to fraud with a wide range of adulterants (for example, fluid cow’s milk is associated with 155 adulterants in the Food Fraud Database). Ensuring the quality and purity of a product link milk requires implementation of multiple analytical techniques or the development of non-targeted methods.
The creation of effective public standards with input by a range of stakeholders will be particularly important for ensuring the quality, safety and accurate labeling of these high value commodities in the future.
A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition 2005, Oxford University Press.
The Food Chemicals Codex is a source of public standards for foods and food ingredients. It was created by the U.S. FDA and the National Institute of Medicine in 1966 and is currently published by the nonprofit organization USP. The FCC contains 1250 standards for food ingredients, which are developed by expert volunteers and posted for public comment before publication.
The Decernis Food Fraud Database is a continuously updated collection of food fraud records curated specifically to support vulnerability assessments. Information is gathered from global sources and is searchable by ingredient, adulterant, country, and hazard classification. Decernis also partners with standards bodies to provide information about fraudulent adulterants to support standards development.
A large recall was initiated by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply for Brazilian olive oil unfit for human consumption, and retailers and traders are requested to report and pull faulty products off the shelves. Large fines will be issued for non-compliance. The fake olive oils are sold very cheaply, but may be a health hazard. An infrared analysis was made to check the composition of fatty acids, which uncovered the fraud.
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