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7 Food Ingredients Most Prone for Food Fraud

ROCKVILLE, Md.—Olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee and apple juice are the seven most likely food ingredients to be targets for intentional or economically motivated adulteration of food, or food fraud, according to analysis of the first U.S. public database created to compile information on risk factors for food fraud published in the Journal of Food Science.

The database was created by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) and provides baseline information to assist interested parties in assessing the risks of specific products. It includes a total of 1,305 records for food fraud based on a total of 667 scholarly, media and other publicly available reports.

Food fraud is a collective term that encompasses the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain. A more specific type of fraud is the fraudulent addition of nonauthentic substances or removal or replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge for economic gain of the seller.

According to the authors of the paper, food fraud may be more risky than traditional threats to the food supply because the adulterants used in these activities often are unconventional and designed to avoid detection through routine analyses.

“The vast majority of food fraud is primarily technical and economical," said John Spink, associate director with the anti-counterfeiting and product protection program at Michigan State University. “However, there are some cases where there can be serious health consequences as illustrated when melamine was added to infant formula and pet food in order to falsify the level of protein content in these products."

The database provides information that can be useful in evaluating current and emerging risks for food fraud. In addition to providing a baseline understanding of the vulnerability of individual ingredients, the database offers information about potential adulterants that could reappear in the supply chain for particular ingredients. For example, records in the database regarding melamine as an adulterant for high-protein-content ingredients date back to 1979.

“Perhaps if this information had been readily available to risk assessors before the 2007 and 2008 incidents of melamine adulteration and wheat gluten and milk powders, it could have helped risk assessors anticipate these adulteration possibilities," the authors wrote. This information also could have stimulated research aimed at developing new methods to measure protein content, which could signal adulteration with melamine and other unexpected constituents—an effort that has only recently gained substantial interest.

“Food ingredients and additives present a unique risk because they are used in so many food products and often do not have visual or functional properties that enable easy discrimination from other similar ingredients or adulterants throughout the supply chain," the authors wrote. Glycerin, for example, is a sweet, clear, colorless liquid that is difficult to differentiate by sight or smell from other sweet, clear, colorless liquid syrups—including toxic diethylene glycol, which in the past has been substituted for glycerin with deadly consequences. Diethylene glycol has been fraudulently added to wines, and also used as an adulterant of glycerin used in pharmaceuticals.

In addition to identifying specific food ingredients and food categories vulnerable to adulteration, the researchers also analyzed the types of analytical detection methods used to discover the fraud, as well as the type of fraud using three categories: replacement, addition or removal. They found 95% of records involved replacement—an authentic material replaced partially or completely by another, less expensive substitute. Examples include partial substitution of olive oil with hazelnut oil, substitution of toxic Japanese star anise for Chinese star anise, and the partial replacement of low-quality spices with lead tetraoxide or lead chromate to imitate the color of higher-quality spices.

Learn more about food safety by downloading Food Product Design’s “Focus on Food Safety" free digital issue.

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