What’s your poison? It is one of those phrases people often use without stopping to think about the meaning (an English idiom: used to ask somebody what they’d like to drink). It is thought to originate in the mid 19th century from the colloquial use of “poison” to describe alcohol. I can only presume that what is being referenced here is the over-enthusiastic use of alcohol and its well-documented after-effects.
The irony in the phrase is that, indeed, there are cases of real poisonings from alcoholic drinks that are not caused by over consumption, but by the acute toxicity of a counterfeit product. Toward the end of 2015, there seemed to be a spate of reports related to fake liquor, with one of the worst being reported in Russia where a number of people tragically lost their lives. This, of course, represents the most serious aspect of counterfeit alcoholic products.
Besides the risk to consumer safety, counterfeit alcoholic products can have a significant economical impact. One of the prime examples is Scottish whisky. Scotch whisky accounts for a quarter of the United Kingdom’s food and a drink export and contributes almost £4 billion towards the UK’s balance of trade (source: Scottish Whisky Association). A high-value target for fraudsters and counterfeiting, Scotch whisky is estimated to cost the industry approximately £500 million each year).
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How do we overcome this fraud? Well, key actions would be to assure authentic products and to detect fakes, which are really two sides of the same coin (at the risk of using a second idiom in one post). This is a truly multi-disciplinary area with an array of different analytical methods and technologies ranging from bioassays to hyphenated mass spectrometry techniques to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
And, who is tackling the issue of food authenticity? Well, my colleague Paul Dewsbury pondered this in his previous article entitled (conveniently ): Who is Tackling the Issue of Food Authenticity? One of the key researchers in this field that Paul highlighted in his post was Professor Jana Hajslova of University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague. Professor Hajslova has a keen interest in food authenticity, and especially applying mass spectrometry techniques. She explains this interest (amongst others) in a recent video interview with SelectScience. Also in this video, Professor Hajslova briefly mentions her experiences using the Thermo Scientific Q Exactive GC Orbitrap GC-MS system during a project where the aim was to explore the potential of Orbitrap GC-MS to help authenticate Scottish whisky. Depending on your preference, you can read in more detail about that experience here: Attaining Accurate Authentication, or watch a video: Jana Hajslova on Attaining Accurate Authentication using GC-Orbitrap MS Technology. If you are still thirsty for more (sorry), you can also download an application note describing some of the scientific detail around this project: Chemical Profiling and Differential Analysis of Whiskies Using Orbitrap GC-MS.
It’s clear to me, from my experiences over the last few years, that methodologies and techniques to ensure food and beverage integrity are continuously developing and evolving, as is the interest in the field. And clearly, our ability to detect and eliminate counterfeit products is of vital importance. If you are interested to learn more and engage with the food authenticity community, then a good starting point is to consider attending meetings organized by the food integrity network. No doubt, myself or my colleagues from Thermo Fisher Scientific will be in attendance for at least some of these, too…