isotope-hunter-with-text-removedFood fraud is a significant global problem. It most commonly involves either simply mislabeling a foodstuff to defraud consumers about its true origin or adulteration of food and beverages with cheaper ingredients to increase the product volume and hence its retail value. Both scenarios can have very serious consequences.  Adulteration of food and beverages currently costs the industry an estimated $30 – $40 billion every year in addition to its potential, and sometimes actual, impact on health, damages both manufacturer brand image and consumer confidence. Developing and implementing effective technologies to aid in the detection of fraud is therefore of paramount importance for global food safety.

In this opening article of a series of blogs, in which my colleagues from our Bremen Centre of Excellence will tell us about how isotope-2their isotope ratio mass spectrometry technologies are helping in the fight against the food fraudsters, I’ll introduce you to the first of our Isotope Hunters – Dr. Christopher Brodie.

Who are you, and what do you do in Bremen?

[Brodie:] My name is Christopher Brodie and I am the Product Manager for part of the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) portfolio at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Bremen, Germany. Specifically, I am responsible for Elemental Analysis Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (EA-IRMS), which is a technique used to quickly analyze whole solid and liquid materials for their isotope fingerprints.  My background and field of study is the application of light stable isotopes to track processes, sources and sinks of material in nature, such as food, fibre, liquid and stone. Such samples carry a unique isotope fingerprint that tells us a lot about the processes that formed the material. EA-IRMS is a particularly useful technique for identifying food fraud because it is easy to use, cheap to run and produces conclusive answers on food and beverage fraud rapidly.

So, you’re a specialist in Isotope Fingerprinting and that technique can be used for detecting food fraud.  Could you tell us more about what constitutes food fraud?

[Brodie: ] Food fraud is a generic term that does not have a specific definition in EU legislation. However, it does overlap significantly with the concept of “fraudulent and deceptive practices” as defined in Article 8 of Regulation (EC) no 178/2002. Food fraud is generally understood to include i) Adulteration, which is the process of making food or beverage products poorer in quality relative to their genuine counterparts by adding extraneous substances; ii) Substitution, which refers to the replacement of all or part of a food or beverage product with another substance of a similar kind without altering its overall characteristic; iii) Diversion, which is viewed as a recycling of materials into the human food chain that were intended to go to waste and iv) Misrepresentation, which is classified as selling a product as something it clearly is not (false label declarations).

Thanks for the explanation, Christopher.  So how do Isotope Fingerprints help in the fight against food and beverage fraud?

[Brodie:] Using isotope fingerprints, food and beverage origin, authenticity and product label claims can be verified. This is because these products all carry an isotope fingerprint, which is a chemical signature, unique to a particular product. The reasons why stable isotopes are really cool, and hence why Isotope Fingerprinting helps in the fight against food and beverage fraud is because the isotope fingerprint is process specific. Being process specific means that products can be differentiated based on geographical region, botanical processes, soil and fertilization processes and fraudulent practices. These processes can be traced using carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, with their variations indicating the origin and history of food and beverage products as it is uniquely linked to their preceding natural and/or manufacturing processes (read more). So, for example, this allows determination of the adulteration of honey with extraneous sugars (read more); assessment of whether organic fruits and vegetables have been grown with organic fertilizers (read more); proving whether or not wine has been diluted down using water or other liquids (read more) and confirmation that product label claims are correct, such as the labelling of sugar (read more) or the origin of coffee (read more). As you can see, detecting the isotope fingerprint of an overall sample, or investigating individual compounds within a whole sample, can provide conclusive data on food and beverage fraud.  

Sounds like an effective and wide ranging approach for detecting food fraud.  What techniques and analytical instrumentation are available to enable visualization of isotope fingerprints in samples?

[Brodie: ] Isotope Fingerprinting requires the use of Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) to detect the isotope fingerprint within a food or beverage sample. There are a number of approaches to preparing food samples for isotope analysis but the fundamental process for IRMS is the conversion of a solid or liquid sample to a gas under high temperature. Food and beverage samples can be introduced into the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer and analyzed for their isotope fingerprint via various analytical peripherals, for example an elemental analyzer or using a gas or a liquid chromatography interface, where the conversion of the sample to a gas is performed by two processes: combustion and pyrolysis. Combustion (burning the sample at around 1000˚C with oxygen) is used to evolve carbon, nitrogen and sulfur from the sample in the form of CO2, N2 and SO2. Pyrolysis (breaking down the sample at 1400˚C in a reductive environment) is used to evolve hydrogen and oxygen from the sample, in the form of H2 and CO. After the gases are produced, they are separated from one another using gas chromatography and then transferred in a continuous gas flow to an isotope ratio mass spectrometry detector that measures the isotope fingerprint of the sample.

The range of dedicated solutions in the Thermo Scientific Isotope Fingerprinting portfolio are designed to offer the different capabilities and performance required to meet the varying analytical needs of modern laboratories running both routine and research applications.  The portfolio includes:

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I see that there is an isotope ratio solution for all organic food and beverage sample types. Does that cover the hardware?  What about the measurement results?  What is important when it comes to data interpretation?

[Brodie:] An important aspect that is incredibly useful for data interpretation in food and beverage integrity investigations is having the original, authentic sample. This allows the fingerprint of that sample to be recorded and then be used as the point of comparison for other samples.  For example, when comparing unknown wines to determine if their origin declaration on the label is accurate, a measurement of the unknown wine compared against the real wine will provide a conclusive answer on the label declaration. The same approach can be used for adulterated honey, rice, coffee, sugar, beef and much more.  Previous and more extensive studies, which are quite few and far between, have generated internationally accepted databases where your samples can be added and compared against to give an indication of their authenticity – such an example is the EU Wine Databank administered by the European Reference Centre for Control in the Wine Sector.

 Finally, who is the Isotope Hunter?

[Brodie: ] The Isotope Hunter is a modern investigator using isotope fingerprints as their tool to find the truth about samples. Their mission is to investigate and uncover the mysteries and true origins of food, fibre, liquid and stone.

 We could say that anyone using isotope fingerprints is an Isotope Hunter… the question is are you an Isotope Hunter yet?

If you’d like to learn more about isotope fingerprints visit our Investigating Authenticity and Tracing Origin with Isotope Fingerprints page and to explore our IRMS portfolio, take a look here.

Thermo Scientific also offers a wide range of other analytical solutions to help you achieve your food safety, authenticity and QA/QC objectives. If you have any questions about methods, workflows or products for these application areas, from trace elemental analysis and chromatography to organic elemental analysis and high resolution mass spectrometry, take a look at our main Food and Beverage resource page and our  Food and Beverage Learning Center.

Alternatively, you can contact us with any inquiries you have regarding food analysis via the comments box below.