The new research – published in the Journal of Food Science – analyses adulteration data included in the first ever public database in an effort to highlight the most fraud-prone ingredients in the food supply.
"This database is a critical step in protecting consumers," said Dr. John Spink of Michigan State University – who led the research.
"Food fraud and economically motivated adulteration have not received the warranted attention given the potential danger they present. We recently defined these terms and now we are defining the scope and scale.”
The authors of the research said that based on a review of records from academic journals, the top seven adulterated ingredients in the database are: olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee, and apple juice. In addition to identifying specific food ingredients and food categories vulnerable to adulteration, the researchers also analysed the methods used to commit such fraud – finding that 95% of records involved either partial of complete replacement of an authentic material with another, often less expensive substitute.
Spink said it was important to publish the findings (found here) in the peer reviewed Journal of Food Science because many people do not believe a concept or risk exists if it does not appear in a scholarly journal: “We believe that publication of this paper ... will allow us to advance the science of food fraud prevention."
The analysis also suggests that had such a database been available before, recent adulteration issues - such as melamine contamination - could possibly have been avoided: “The database also provides 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,” said Spink and his team.
“Perhaps if this information had been readily available to risk assessors before the 2007 to 2008 incidents of melamine-adulterated wheat gluten and milk powders, it could have helped risk assessors anticipate these adulteration possibilities.”
The new database (found here) has been set up by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, to help develop standards and ensure the identity, quality and purity of food ingredients and dietary supplements. It provides baseline information to assist interested parties in assessing the risks of specific products.
The database includes a total of 1,305 records of food fraud and is based on more than 650 academic, media, and other publicly available reports.
Whilst it is traditionally considered to be an economic issue, and less a consumer safety threat, Spink and his team did find that in some ways food fraud may be more risky than traditional threats to the food supply.
They noted that adulterants being used are often ‘unconventional’ and designed to avoid detection through routine analyses.
For example, melamine, was considered neither a potential contaminant nor an adulterant in the food supply before the episodes of adulteration of pet food in 2007 and infant formula and other milk products in 2008, they said.
However they noted that using the new database, records indicate that melamine had been found as an adulterant to mimic protein as early as 1979. But, they explain, this remained virtually unknown until 2007.
"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," they said – noting that current protection systems are not designed to look for the nearly infinite number of potential adulterants that may show up in the food supply.
Spink and colleagues also noted that glycerine is also a risk to adulteration. They explained that because the ingredient is a sweet, clear, colourless liquid, it is difficult to differentiate by sight or smell from other sweet, clear, colourless liquid syrups—including toxic diethylene glycol, which in the past has been substituted for glycerin with deadly consequences.
Source: Journal of Food Science
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2012.02657.x
"Development and Application of a Database of Food Ingredient Fraud and Economically Motivated Adulteration from 1980 to 2010"
Authors: J.C. Moore, J. Spink, M. Lipp