The FDA has posted an updated list of additional recalls related to the multistate outbreak of Salmonella Senftenberg infections linked to certain Jif brand peanut butter products produced at the J.M. Smucker Company facility in Lexington, Kentucky.
The recalls are being conducted by companies that have used the peanut butter as an ingredient in the manufacturing of a new product or in repackaging the product. The recalls include:
Deskins Candies of Bluefield, West Virginia, is recalling the following 16 oz. products: Deskins Candies Peanut Butter Fudge, Deskins Candies Peanut Butter No-Bake, Deskins Candies Peanut Butter Pinwheel, and Deskins Candies Chocolate No-Bake
F&S Produce Co. of Vineland, New Jersey is recalling a limited quantity of Fresh Garden Highway Protein Power Snacks
Taharka Brothers Ice Cream of Baltimore, Maryland is recalling its Peanut Butter Cup ice cream
J.M. Smucker Company has voluntarily recalled Jif brand peanut butter products that have the lot code numbers between 1274425 – 2140425, only if the first seven digits end with 425 (manufactured in Lexington, KY).
Additional information including advice for consumers, restaurants and retailers is available on the FDA Outbreak Investigation of Salmonella: Peanut Butter page.
Undeclared allergens continue to be a big cause of food recalls. For allergen management practices to be effective within food companies, there must be a shared responsibility between food manufacturers, government agencies, regulators and consumers, says Guangtao Zhang, Ph.D., director of the Mars Global Food Safety Center. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Zhang discussed key concerns related to undeclared allergens in food as well as the research that Mars is conducting to improve allergen management.
Food Safety Tech: The presence of undeclared allergens continues to be a hazard in the food safety space. Specific to peanut detection, what challenges is the industry facing?
Guangtao Zhang, Ph.D.: As food materials become more varied and complicated, food allergen management becomes increasingly complex. Robust, accurate and sensitive detection methods are essential to ensure consumer safety as well as compliance with regulatory standards for allergens in the food supply chain.
When you look at the regulatory aspects, detection methods go hand in hand. Firstly, there is a need to ensure that current standard detection methods used in regulatory control of consumer goods are validated for a range of complex food matrices to ensure neither over- nor under-estimation of allergen content occurs within a food supply chain. This is important because underestimation of allergen poses a significant food safety hazard to consumers, while overestimation of allergen can result in unnecessary product recalls, driving up product costs and food waste.
Secondly, validation and monitoring of the effectiveness of cleaning and handling practices in areas of potential cross contamination with allergen containing materials depend on reliable and robust quantitative food allergen test methods for their success. The more robust the testing protocols, the more we can improve our understanding of the risks associated with cross contamination of food allergens, potentially reducing the frequency of accidental contamination events.
It is also important to note that whilst the most common cause of undeclared allergen in the global food supply chain is through accidental contamination in raw materials or finished products, this is not the only method by which undeclared allergen may be found in a product.
For example, peanut flour may be used in economically motivated adulteration (EMA) food fraud cases. In 2018 the European Commission estimated that the cost of food fraud for the global food industry is approximately €30 billion every year. Due to its high protein content, peanut flour has been used as a bulking agent to raise the overall protein content of e.g., wheat flour, thus raising the ‘quality’, and therefore price, of lower value goods. The ability to effectively quantify peanut traces within complex products therefore has the potential to enable consumers of food products to further trust the safety of the food they eat.
ELISA (Enzyme linked immunosorbent assay) is the method used most frequently for peanut allergen detection in the food manufacturing industry because of its sensitivity and ease of use. However, it has disadvantages in certain settings. It is not currently validated for complex food matrices, as it is believed that the effects of both food matrices and food processing could result in an underestimation of peanut concentrations in thermally processed foods, leading to false negatives, as well as overestimation in complex food matrices, leading to false positives which are a potential food safety hazard to consumers.
Food Safety Tech: Tell us about the research that the Mars Global Food Safety Center is doing to help the industry with effective methods for peanut quantification.
Zhang: At the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) we believe that everyone has the right to safe food and that we have a responsibility to generate and share insights to help solve for global food safety challenges. We also know we can’t tackle these alone, which is why we collaborate with external partners. One of our focus areas is advancing understanding and knowledge sharing in peanut allergen detection. As part of that work, we are exploring methods of improving food safety via the development of advanced analytical methods to detect peanut allergen content, in the hopes that it will enable the food industry to expand on current preventative management protocols, including early detection methodologies, for faster response to future food allergen contamination events.
As part of our latest published research, we investigated the accuracy and sensitivity of ELISA-based test methods on raw and cooked wheat flour, wheat flour-salt and wheat flour-salt-oil matrices, which are common ingredients in the food industry. 10 ppm peanut was doped into each matrix during sample preparation. Recovery testing demonstrated that in all matrices the current industry standard ELISA method overestimated results with recoveries ranging from 49.6 to 68.6 ppm.
These findings prompted the development of a new confirmatory method based on liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS/MS) for peanut quantification. When subjected to the same validation testing programme the HPLC-MS/MS technique was demonstrably more accurate and sensitive, with a limit of quantification of 0.3 ppm and the detected peanut concentration ranging from 6.8 to 12.8 ppm for samples doped with 10 ppm peanut.
This work is a first step in the development of a new standard method for peanut detection in complex food matrices and could ultimately inform safer manufacturing Quality & Food Safety (Q&FS) processes across global supply chains to help ensure safe food for all.
Food Safety Tech: What projects are researchers at the Center working on to enhance allergen management as a whole?
Zhang: A successful allergen management program depends on rigorous control of allergenic foods and ingredients from all other products and ingredients at every step of the food production process, from raw material development to the delivery of final products. This means that for allergen management practices to be effective, they must be a shared responsibility between food manufacturers, government agencies, regulators and consumers.
At the Mars GFSC, we take a precompetitive approach to research, knowledge sharing and collaborations—this means we openly share insights and expertise to help ensure safe food for all. This is important in driving forward innovations, helping unlock solutions that may not have previously been possible.
We have shared our latest work both through an open access publication in Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A but also directly with regulatory bodies such as the FDA in the hopes of advancing knowledge in both food safety risk management and allergen management in complex flour-based media within global supply chains. In addition to this, this research contributes to a wider Food Safety Best Practice whitepaper focused on food allergen risk management currently under draft by the Mars GFSC, which will be published in collaboration with Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center and the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) later this year.
We believe that global collaborations such as this are essential to improving food allergen management and mitigating food safety risks. Communication, training and knowledge sharing are core principles of the Mars GFSC and as such form a large part of our ongoing activities in this space. For example, we have hosted Food Allergen Management workshops in collaboration with Danone and Romer Labs focused on helping to raise awareness of current and future food allergen trends. At one such event in 2019, 100 participants from 16 food companies came together to promote food allergen management in the industry and ensure that the next generation of food integrity testing capability is relevant, practical, and directly applicable to the real-world problems experienced by manufacturers and processors throughout the supply chain.
Representatives of the Mars GFSC have also shared our insights externally at a number of international conferences as well as during a Food Enterprise Food Allergen Management Seminar on topics including effective allergen management procedures, our guiding principles for allergen managements at Mars, and shared our approach to encourage and share knowledge with other manufactures in this area.
We continue to support requests for technical insights, for example providing insights during a global consultation session on General Principles for Labeling of Prepackaged Food. This resulted in the addition of characterization requirements for possible allergenic substances, promoting the use of a recognizable naming system in ingredient lists that contain allergen warnings.
Food Safety Tech: Can you comment on additional work your team is doing in the area of food fraud?
Zhang: Food allergen risk management forms only one part of our wider food integrity focus at the Mars GFSC. We are committed to helping ensure food authenticity in an increasingly complex, global food supply chain through collaboration with global partners to develop new and improved tools and analytical methods that help protect the integrity of raw materials and finished products.
We have collaborated with researchers at Michigan State University to develop a Food Fraud Prevention Cycle roadmap (Introducing the Food Fraud Prevention Cycle (FFPC): A dynamic information management and strategic roadmap) which answered questions such as how to detect food fraud, how to start a food fraud prevention program, what to do in terms of testing, how much testing is enough, and how to measure success. Our intention in publishing this research was that the adoption of a holistic and all-encompassing information management cycle will enable a globally harmonized approach and the continued sharing of best practices across industry partners.
More recently, we completed an international collaboration tackling rice adulteration together with Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), Agilent Technologies, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA), and Zhejiang Yangtze Delta Institute of Tsinghua University (Yangtze Delta). This work successfully developed a two-tier testing program, capable of rapidly screening the geographical origins of rice within the global supply chain (Food Fingerprinting: Using a two-tiered approach to monitor and mitigate food fraud in rice). By developing a tiered system, we could ensure that manufacturers use the right techniques for the right occasion, to maximize the information available in investigating food fraud at the best value. As part of this work, we have helped develop hands-on training in Ghana and inform best practice guidance to help build the foundations of a strong food safety culture in rice authenticity across the global supply chain.
Today the FDA announced its budget request as part of the President’s 2023 fiscal year budget. Within the food sector, the agency is asking for $43 million for food safety modernization (including animal food safety) oversight—which includes efforts in continued implementation of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. The funding will also go towards improving preventative food safety practices, data sharing, predictive analytics and traceability, which will help the agency respond to outbreaks and recalls faster. “In partnership with states, the FDA will expand efforts to modernize, harmonize and transform the U.S. animal food inspection system to become more comprehensive and prevention oriented,” the FDA stated in an email release.
The FDA also requested $14 million in funding to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins in food. Last year the agency came under fire following a report released by Congress that stated there was an alarming amount of toxic heavy metals found in baby food. In response, the FDA devised a “Closer to Zero” action plan with a goal of reducing the presence of dangerous metals in foods commonly consumed by babies and young children. “Additional funding and legislative proposals will focus specifically on better protecting mothers, infants and young children through contamination limits in food, product testing requirements, notification of anticipated significant interruptions in the supply of infant formula or essential medical foods, as well as modernization of dietary supplement regulation,” the FDA stated.
Under the FDA’s funding requests that serve its core operations, the agency asked for $68 million for data modernization and enhanced technologies, which includes improving infrastructure aligned to the food programs; and $24 million to optimize inspections, including increasing support for recruiting and training new FDA investigators.
The FY budget covers October 1, 2022 through September 30, 2023.
FDA food recalls fell more than 11% and USDA recalls increased by just one recall in Q3. If this decreased activity continues, 2021 food recalls could fall to their lowest levels in more than a decade.
The drop in recalls is good news, but food companies remain challenged in maintaining and implementing effective employee training. “Health and safety risks related to the coronavirus, combined with labor shortages, mean that companies must double down on training, communication, and accountability, particularly in cases where employees have never worked in food manufacturing,” according to Sedgwick’s Q3 update on U.S. recalls. “All the right protocols and procedures can be in place, but without a skilled workforce and commitment to continuous improvement, no number of written policies and procedures will prove effective. Companies and their quality and safety teams must be ready, willing, and able to embrace new technologies and evolve with new regulatory guidance as the industry innovates.”
FDA Recalls: Notable Numbers (Q3 2021)
- Recall activity dropped from 106 recalls in Q2 to 94 recalls (11.3% decline)
- Prepared foods and produce were top categories for recalls, with 13 events each
- Recalls affected 2.4 million units, a nearly 70% drop from Q2 (7.9 million units)
- 33% of recalls were Class I
- Undeclared allergens was leading cause of recall, with milk being the main cause
- Bacterial contamination came in second for amount of recalls at 25, followed by quality concerns at 11 recalls
USDA Recalls: Notable Numbers (Q3 2021)
- Recalls increased from 12 to 13 events (quarter-over-quarter)
- Number of pounds increased from 207,000 pounds to 10.7 million pounds (due to a single recall of ready-to-eat poultry products that affected almost 9 million pounds)
- Bacterial contamination was the top cause of recalls—Listeria, Salmonella, and E.coli were the named pathogens of concern
- Eight recalls were due to undeclared allergens
- Poultry products the most impacted product category
In November alone, there were nine recalls as a result of foreign matter contamination. Learn more about the strategies companies should implement to prevent and detect foreign materials during Food Safety Tech’s upcoming virtual event, “Food Safety Hazards: Physical Hazards”. | Thursday, December 16 at 12 pm ET.
This week’s episode of the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series focuses on the latest in trends and analysis related to food recalls. The following is the agenda for Thursday’s episode, which begins at 12 pm ET.
- Recalls: Trends & Analysis, presented by Shawn Stevens, Food Industry Counsel, LLC
- How to Respond to Recalls, presented by Roberto Bellavia, KTL (Kestrel Tellevate)
- Recall Modernization Working Group, a panel discussion moderated by Mitzi Baum, STOP Foodborne Illness, with insights from Hilary Thesmar, Ph.D., FMI and Jennifer Pierquet, AFDO
- Tech Talks presented by Millipore, Hardy Diagnostics and Columbia Labs
The Fall program runs every Thursday from October 7 through November 4. Haven’t registered? Follow this link to the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to all the episodes featuring critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts!
For the 23rd quarter in a row, undeclared allergens were the top cause of food recalls and accounted for 45% of them in Q3 2021, according to Sedgwick’s latest Recall Index report. Within allergens, undeclared milk was the leading cause and prepared foods remained the leading category.
“Companies need to concentrate on the basics through the second half of 2021 and final emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. “Amid supply chain pressures, high consumer demand and worker health and safety concerns arising from the coronavirus, food businesses are rightfully focused on their ability to maintain and conduct their core operations in safe manner while delivering quality, safe products to customers.”
FDA Recalls: Notable Numbers (Q2 2021)
- 106 recalls affecting 7.9 million units
- 5.8 million units (nearly 69%) impacted by recalls were due to one nut recall
- 19 recalls were a result of quality issues
- 18 recalls were a result of foreign material contamination
- 11 recalls were a result of bacterial contamination—6 from Listeria; 4 Salmonella; and 1 E. coli
USDA Recalls: Notable Numbers (Q2 2021)
- Recalls increased from 10 (Q1) to 12, but numbers still low compared to 2019 quarterly averages
- Units impacted dramatically dropped nearly 83% to 207,322 units
- Undeclared allergens were top cause of recalls, accounting for nearly 42%
- Soy milk and eggs were main allergens, but first recall of food products due to sesame also occurred
- Other recall reasons were quality (2), lack of inspection (2), bacterial contamination (2) and foreign material contamination (1)
- Beef products (93,551 pounds) most impacted category, followed by fish (46,804 pounds)
The report also pointed out that heavy metal regulation will have increased emphasis, as FDA has made it a priority as a result of a report released by Congress earlier this year indicating the presence of dangerous toxic heavy metals found in baby foods.
The first half of 2021 saw almost a 20% increase in recalls vs. the last 6 months of 2020 (117 vs. 96). According to a recent report by Lathrop GPM, LLC, food producers have seen an increase in food safety incidents since the pandemic began, and expect an ongoing increase over the next year.1 A majority of recalls were due to undeclared allergens or potential for allergen cross contamination. Second to allergens were potential for microbiological contaminants, including Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, and Cyclospora.
|Figure 1 and 2. The first half of 2021 saw a 26% increase of facility inspections by the FDA. Despite this jump, inspections in the first half of 2020 were 80% higher than this year’s first six months. Source: FDA Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts.|
The first half of 2021 saw a 26% increase of facility inspections by the FDA. Despite this jump, inspections in the first half of 2020 were 80% higher than this year’s first six months. Inspections generally lead to three outcomes; No Action Indicated (continue as you were,) Voluntary Action Indicated (voluntary to make some changes), or Official Action Indicated (OAI) (Regulatory Actions will be recommended by the FDA). A majority of inspections (56%) resulted in NAI this year, compared to 59% and 50% in the first and second halves of 2020, respectively.
The FSIS provides ongoing surveillance of Salmonella and Campylobacter presence in poultry, both domestic and imported. Salmonella is reported by facility and each is given a category rating of 1–3. One is exceeding the standard (based on a 52-week moving average), two is meeting the standard, and three is below standard. For the 52-week reporting period ending May 30, 2021, 60% achieved category one, compared to 56% the previous 52 weeks.
|Figures 4 & 5. Salmonella surveillance data from FDA.|
Listeria and Salmonella Surveillance in RTE Meat and Poultry
USDA FSIS conducts periodic sampling of Ready to Eat (RTE) meat and poultry products and reports quarterly results. Sampling is conducted both in a random fashion as well as based on risk-based sampling. In Q2 2021, 4769 samples were tested for Listeria, compared to 4632 in Q1.
Percent positive rates were .36% for Q2 and .43% for Q1. Neither quarter reported any positives for Listeria in imported RTE Meat and Poultry Products.
Salmonella samples for RTE totaled 3676 in Q2 2021, compared with 3566 in Q1. In both quarters, only 1 positive was found in the samples collected.
Routine Beef Sampling for E. coli 0157:H7 and STEC
The FSIS also conducts ongoing routine sampling of beef products for E. coli. E. coli is further classified into 0157:H7 and non-0157:H7 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). In Q2 of 2021, 4467 samples were collected and tested for 0157:H7 versus 4268 in Q1. Of these, three were positive, compared to seven positives the preceding quarter. For STEC, a total of 8 positives were found, compared to 1 positive in Q1. No positives were found in imported goods in Q2, although in Q1 2021, 4 positives for STEC were found.
The first half of 2021 showed an increase in activity, which is on par with food industry survey data. Food recalls have increased, with food allergens remaining the most prevalent reason for recall or withdrawal. While inspections also increased, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The impact of the spread of the Delta variant and increased restrictions is yet to be seen, but inspection activity will likely not rebound entirely by the end of the year. Pathogen tests by FSIS increased quarter over quarter for Salmonella, E. coli, and STEC, with mixed results in prevalence.
1. Lathrop GPM, LLC. (2021). Food Processing Trends, Outlook and Guidance Report. Retrieved from https://www.lathropgpm.com/report-agribusiness.html
Last month, federal authorities enacted a recall process for all Real Water brand products from AffinityLifestyles.com Inc., as a result of a fatality and multiple illnesses that might be linked to the product. In addition to the recall, there are a number of court orders being enacted to retrieve records, documentation and other information from the company. The product in question is bottled water that is chemically treated to enhance its “benefits.”
Over the last 20 or so years, as with many other food and beverage categories, the bottled water market has exploded. It began with Natural Spring Waters, then emerged into what was termed “purified waters.” Over time, carbonation and flavors, both natural and imitation, were added to enhance the products’ appeal to different demographics and to capture market share. The trend has continued to illustrate how both SKU proliferation and catering to the changing needs of the consumer has complicated the industry and made it increasingly complex. Complexity, of course, adds risk.
The Real Water situation brings to light potential issues both for the bottled water segment and for the food and beverage manufacturing industry on the whole. Beverage and food products often utilize additives to enhance flavor, add nutritional benefits, etc. In addition to these additives, many food and beverage products are produced with “reactionary” processes that claim to supercharge, enhance, and/or re-engineer something to a so-called better state. Government regulators monitor these processes to ensure that they do not cause health risks. Enhanced and more stringent labeling laws were enacted at the end of the Obama era and just recently, President Biden signed the FASTER Act that requires manufacturers to list sesame on their labels, as it is now a known allergen. In addition to additives, regulatory agencies monitor the new chemical and reactionary processes used in producing products to ensure that the integrity and safety of these products are not put at risk.
Lessons Learned from the Real Water Recall
Where does the industry go from here, and what lessons can manufacturers take away from the Real Water incident and from the increasingly complex state of food and beverage manufacturing? First, we know regulations will continue to increase, especially as incidents become more commonplace. The industry has been on high alert since the outbreak of COVID-19. Governments and industry will continue to try to determine if the virus can in fact be transmitted through food or food packaging. As food manufacturers experiment with plant-based food alternatives, employ new technologies and react to recalls, they should prepare for continued scrutiny and regulations which will impact how businesses are run.
The question that needs to be answered is: What should food and beverage manufacturers do to prepare for future changes to regulations and prevent potential safety issues?
The answer is: They should implement a quality management system and related business processes and systems tailored for the unique challenges of their industry.
F&B Manufacturers Can Improve Quality Systems to Prepare for Future Regulation and Safety Changes
Many manufacturers already have parts of this system and the processes in place, but it is surprising how many have not integrated them with their other systems. If we use the Real Water issue as a case study, there are a number of things that a manufacturer needs to do from a quality perspective in terms of processes, procedures and systems.
Traceability. Accuracy and timing is critical in the face of any recall. Track and traceability functionality built into the central manufacturing and/or quality system is an absolute must. Technology is available to visually track and trace every lot that goes out the door, whether from a company facility or a co-packer, and note where in the market it has been distributed.
Document Control. The government demanded that AffinityLifestyles.com Inc. turn over all documentation related to its products’ ingredients, processes, etc. Manufacturers need to ensure their document management systems include food safety precautions and that all process and product information needs to be in place.
Product and Process Change Management. Integrating inspection processes with control plans ensures that inspection requirements stay connected during change management. This coupled with non-conformance creation based on inspection failures results in reductions in the cost, time and complexity of change management.
Audit Processes. To comply with ever-changing regulations, effective internal audit programs must be implemented to drive compliance and continual improvement. A closed-loop system should address product, process and system audits to help manage any findings of non-conformance prior to external audits and to allow for corrective actions to be implemented before an issue arises.
Supplier Quality Management. Food safety issues can often be due to a material or food ingredient issue. Monitoring all activities with suppliers by requiring and instituting best practices can help ensure supplier conformance.
Ensuring Ongoing Success and Profitability for F&B Manufacturers
All businesses operate to make money. Food and beverage manufacturers are no exception. But, when the products being made are consumables, the top priorities have to be safety, quality and food integrity. The food and beverage market is changing and evolving. Due to increasing customer demand, consumer preferences, sustainability initiatives and government regulations, manufacturers face more pressure to improve quality. These market changes have resulted in faster life cycles, shorter lead times, and the need for manufacturers to deliver more products faster than before, which puts pressure on the entire organization. Manufacturers in the food and beverage industry are under intense scrutiny to consistently produce safe food. Occasionally, issues occur that are out of a manufacturer’s control, but the producers of food and beverage products still have a responsibility to ensure that all precautions are in place to meet the safety needs of the end consumer. Efficient processes and systems to manage food safety not only meet the required compliance requirements but are a huge step in ensuring ongoing success and profitability.
It is fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year with wide-ranging effects, including significant effects on our ongoing efforts to ensure food integrity and prevent fraud in the food system. COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions for foods and many other consumer products. It also highlighted challenges in effective tracking and standardization of food fraud-related data.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable food fraud occurrences in 2020:
- Organic Products. The Spanish Guardia Civil investigated an organized crime group that sold pistachios with pesticide residues that were fraudulently labeled as organic, reportedly yielding €6 million in profit. USDA reported fraudulent organic certificates for products including winter squash, leafy greens, collagen peptides powder, blackberries, and avocados. Counterfeit wines with fraudulent DOG, PGI, and organic labels were discovered in Italy.
- Herbs and Spices. Quite a few reports came out of India and Pakistan about adulteration and fraud in the local spice market. One of the most egregious involved the use of animal dung along with various other substances in the production of fraudulent chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and garam masala spice mix. Greece issued a notification for a turmeric recall following the detection of lead, chromium, and mercury in a sample of the product. Belgium recalled chili pepper for containing an “unauthorized coloring agent.” Reports of research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast also indicated that 25% of sage samples purchased from e-commerce or independent channels in the U.K. were adulterated with other leafy material.
- Dairy Products. India and Pakistan have also reported quite a few incidents of fraud in local markets involving dairy products. These have included reports of counterfeit ghee and fraudulent ghee manufactured with animal fats as well as milk adulterated with a variety of fraudulent substances. The Czech Republic issued a report about Edam cheese that contained vegetable fat instead of milk fat.
- Honey. Greece issued multiple alerts for honey containing sugar syrups and, in one case, caramel colors. Turkey reported a surveillance test that identified foreign sugars in honeycomb.
- Meat and Fish. This European report concluded that the vulnerability to fraud in animal production networks was particularly high during to the COVID-19 pandemic due to the “most widely spread effects in terms of production, logistics, and demand.” Thousands of pounds of seafood were destroyed in Cambodia because they contained a gelatin-like substance. Fraudulent USDA marks of inspection were discovered on chicken imported to the United States from China. Soy protein far exceeding levels that could be expected from cross contamination were identified in sausage in the Czech Republic. In Colombia, a supplier of food for school children was accused of selling donkey and horse meat as beef. Decades of fraud involving halal beef was recently reported in in Malaysia.
- Alcoholic Beverages. To date, our system has captured more than 30 separate incidents of fraud involving wine or other alcoholic beverages in 2020. Many of these involved illegally produced products, some of which contained toxic substances such as methanol. There were also multiple reports of counterfeit wines and whisky. Wines were also adulterated with sugar, flavors, colors and water.
We have currently captured about 70% of the number of incidents for 2020 as compared to 2019, although there are always lags in reporting and data capture, so we expect that number to rise over the coming weeks. These numbers do not appear to bear out predictions about the higher risk of food fraud cited by many groups resulting from the effects of COVID-19. This is likely due in part to reduced surveillance and reporting due to the effects of COVID lockdowns on regulatory and auditing programs. However, as noted in a recent article, we should take seriously food fraud reports that occur against this “backdrop of reduced regulatory oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.” If public reports are just the tip of the iceburg, 2020 numbers that are close to those reported in 2019 may indeed indicate that the iceburg is actually larger.
Unfortunately, tracking food fraud reports and inferring trends is a difficult task. There is currently no globally standardized system for collection and reporting information on food fraud occurrences, or even standardized definitions for food fraud and the ways in which it happens. Media reports of fraud are challenging to verify and there can be many media reports related to one individual incident, which complicates tracking (especially by automated systems). Reports from official sources are not without their own challenges. Government agencies have varying priorities for their surveillance and testing programs, and these priorities have a direct effect on the data that is reported. Therefore, increases in reports for a particular commodity do not necessarily indicate a trend, they may just reflect an ongoing regulatory priority a particular country. Official sources are also not standardized with respect to how they report food safety or fraud incidents. Two RASFF notifications in 2008 following the discovery of melamine adulteration in milk illustrate this point (see Figure 1). In the first notification for a “milk drink” product, the hazard category was listed as “adulteration/fraud.” However, in the second notification for “chocolate and strawberry flavor body pen sets,” the hazard category was listed as “industrial contaminants,” even though the analytical result was higher.1
What does all of this mean for ensuring food authenticity into 2021? We need to continue efforts to align terminology, track food fraud risk data, and ensure transparency and evaluation of the data that is reported. Alignment and standardization of food fraud reporting would go a long way to improving our understanding of how much food fraud occurs and where. Renewed efforts by global authorities to strengthen food authenticity protections are important. Finally, consumers and industry must continue to demand and ensure authenticity in our food supply. While most food fraud may not have immediate health consequences for consumers, reduced controls can lead to systemic problems and have devastating effects.
- Everstine, K., Popping, B., and Gendel, S.M. (2021). Food fraud mitigation: strategic approaches and tools. In R.S. Hellberg, K. Everstine, & S. Sklare (Eds.) Food Fraud – A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences (pp. 23-44). Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817242-1.00015-4