food fraudThis is the challenge for analytical chemists: to detect food fraud and stop fraudsters cheating consumers and ignoring food safety considerations by substituting a high-value product with a lower-value alternative, or by mislabeling the content or origin of a product simply for financial gain. This activity begs a number of questions. Have you yourself ever been a victim of food fraud? Do you always trust food labeling information? Are you eating pork or chicken, or horse or beef? Well, you are not likely to know and it is probably a more common occurrence than you realize. And what of the authenticity of other products like milk, honey, or fish? Which foods are in the top 10 adulterated products?

One of the most high-profile food fraud incidents was the substitution of horse meat for beef in 2012 in the European Union. This happened in the wake of incidences of adulteration to increase the market value of products, including the addition of melamine to milk to increase apparent nitrogen content and addition of Sudan dyes to spices to intensify the color. The melamine in milk incident resulted in the hospitalization of thousands of infants, whilst the Sudan dyes issue cost the food industry  more than £200 million in the UK alone. Professor Christopher Elliot (director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University, Belfast) was commissioned by the UK government to investigate the horse meat incident, and his findings and recommendations were published in a comprehensive report titled Elliot Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks in July 2014.

The Vast Scale of Food Fraud

Speaking at the conference on Recent Advances in Food Analysis (RAFA 2015), Professor Chris Elliot emphasized that the globalization and ever-increasing complexity of the food supply chain is creating ever more opportunities for fraudsters to adulterate our foods (usually substitution of a high-quality product with a poor-value product). Because of the organized nature and scale of the horse meat scandal (it occurred in a chain that stretched across a number of member state countries), Professor Elliot suggested that this and similar incidents should be treated as a food crime, rather than simply a fraud, attracting more appropriate penalties for the perpetrators. A more recent example is the adulteration of spices with other plant material. This and many more examples are listed on the European Food Integrity website. One of Elliot’s cornerstone recommendations was the need for analysts to lead the fight back with new analytical approaches.

Fighting Back

It seems there are more questions than answers, but perhaps new developments in High Resolution Accurate Mass (HRAM) Mass spectrometry can lead the fight back.

At the RAFA conference there was talk of applying the latest technologies to deliver faster, more sensitive, higher throughput methods for contaminants, residues and pathogens using bioanalytical molecular spectroscopy, including hand-held devices and chemical technologies. The hot topic that caught my attention was the use of non-targeted mass spectrometry to detect food fraud. Again there was talk of screening, profiling, fingerprinting, and sample characterization, but essentially it involves non-target acquisition of data followed by chemometric and bioinformatic statistical approaches to interpret the information.

In a recent video interview, Professor Jana Hajšlová (UCT, Prague) explains why in her laboratory LC-orbitrap technology is a key tool in the fight against food fraud. The reason for this interest and trust in orbitrap technology is that the new generation of high resolution accurate mass detectors coupled to liquid chromatography (LC-HRAM) and gas chromatography (GC-HRAM)provides significant advances in resolving power, sensitivity, robustness, extended dynamic range, easier mass calibration and tandem mass capabilities, making it an attractive and reliable tool to detect food fraud.

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Other Recent Examples of Food Fraud

In a recent article titled Attaining Accurate Authentification and video interview Prof Hajšlová shares her thoughts on the use of GC-Orbitrap technology for a proof-of-concept project on the authentication of Scottish whiskies. She discusses questions like: is it possible to distinguish between whiskies from different distilleries, or whiskies from the same distilleries subjected to different aging processes? Is the label information correct?

In another recently published article called Assessment of Meat Authenticity Using Bioinformatics, Targeted Peptide Biomarkers and High-resolution Mass Spectrometry, Alberta Ruiz Orduna et al described the use of LC-Orbitrap technology for the detection of meat speciation down to a 1% w/w of undesired product. Similarly, Zhengfang Wang & Joseph E. Jablonski published an article titled Targeted and non-targeted detection of lemon juice adulteration by LC–MS and chemometrics. Because of the inherent high variability the non-targeted approach proved more effective than targeted approaches for  detection of lemon juice adulteration.

Additional Resources

For more information on food authenticity and food fraud, visit these additional resources.

If you have any questions or comments on this blog, or a general interest in the analysis of food fraud, I’d like to hear your thoughts.