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Detecting food fraud

Detecting food fraud

The history of food fraud is probably as old as the trade of food products itself, as there has always been people, trying to maximise their profits by making food products look like they were of higher quality or just tricking people with cheap copies of real products.

Even today food fraud is a big issue in the food industry and food fraud cases like olive oils blended with cheaper vegetable oils or surimi fish meat declared as real lobster meat are constantly appearing in the media. These kinds of frauds are still possible as most smaller companies still use only sensory tests to check on food fraud and as copied or adulterated products often appear, taste and smell similar to the original product, just professionals, who are regularly dealing with the product category, are able to detect fraud just on the bases of sensory tests.

In addition, there is also some case of fraud, which even professionals can’t really detect with just sensory or common chemical quick tests today. Conventional food, labeled as organic or standard honey labeled as Manuka Honey, for example, are two cases, where more advanced techniques have to come into play to protect consumers and also manufactures against fraud.

With gel electrophoresis, for example, you are able to y look for DNA traces of the Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) pollen in the honey and can thereby distinguish it from standard honey.

In addition, you could also use this method to detect if cheap carob was used in chocolates to bring down the production costs or if the fish filet you bought is really red snapper or just cheap tilapia.

As long as you are able to find traces of DNA within the product you can close a lot of loopholes for Counterfeiters with this technique, but the technique needs expensive equipment and know-how, which makes it not really applicable for smaller companies.

In addition, you would also still need other analyses methods to check on other quality parameters, like if the product was produced under organic circumstances or not, or if the ingredient you bought really comes from the region the supplier claimed it comes from. The DNA, in predominantly just tells you what kind ingredient was used, but not how and where they got produced.

To check on those two parameters you would have to make use of the stable isotope method, which enables you to find out based on variations in nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, sulphur, and hydrogen isotope ratios, where and as well how the food product was produced.

Organic plants, which got fertilised with organic fertilisers like manure contain, for example, more of the heavy N15 Nitrogen isotopes than conventional plants, fertilised with artificial fertilisers, which contain more of the standard N14 Nitrogen.

By checking the ratios of normal N14 and N15 you can, therefore, check how the plant was fertilised and therefore get a hint if it was organically produced or not. In addition, the N15 and N14 ratio you can also give you a hint if an animal was fed with organic or conventional fodder as the animals also absorb the isotopes through the fodder.

When it comes to Beef you can, for example, also use the stable Isotope method to check if the beef was grass fed or fed with corn. Gras fed beef contains more of the carbon Isotope C12 and less of the heavier C13 Isotopes, which is due to the slightly different photosynthesis of C3-Plants in comparison to C4-Plants like corn.

Next to the way of production you can also use the stable isotope method as well to see where the product was grown or raised. Every location has its own isotope profile. The soil in an area has, for example, a specific ratio of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes and the water, which plants absorb and farm animals drink has as well a specific ratio of hydrogen and oxygen Isotopes. By knowing these profiles you can, therefore, find out where the animal was raised or plant was grown, as the isotope profile is also hidden in the cells of the plant or animal after the consumption.

Therefore, you can, for example, check if the wine really comes from a certain vineyard or If the Kobe beef really derived from a cattle from the region Kobe.

Unfortunately, the machines for the stable isotope methods are as well pretty expensive and the preparation of the samples is also not that simple. Therefore most companies outsource this analysis to a third-party. As these external tests then also take more time than regular internal tests, these tests are mostly not carried out for every batch, but just on special occasions, when there is, for example, a change of the supplier, which gives Counterfeiters still loopholes for fraud.

As you can see there are currently many ways to detect food fraud and to protect customers against food fraud, but as long as these techniques will not get more simplified and affordable, food fraud will still be a hot topic. Interested to see what innovative tools maybe will come with to solve this issue.

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