EC battles organic food fraud with 'fingerprinting' test

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Agriculture Organic food Organic certification

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has developed a new metabolomics fingerprinting methodology that, the researchers say, could be used to authenticate organic food products.

The JRC’s findings were based on a multi-year field study of comparative metabolomics combined with chemometry applied to carrots originating from different agronomic environments. Over a four-year period, JRC scientists performed a biochemical analysis on untargeted liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS) metabolomics of conventional and organic carrots.

Methodology and findings

Carrot samples of Nerac and Namur varieties were collected directly from fields in the Walloon region of Belgium. The extracts from the carrot samples were analysed using high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.

Using what the JRC describes as a “strict quality control scheme”​, the data was subsequently exported for multivariate statistical analysis.

Compounds were identified following guidelines of the Metabolomics Standards Initiative and, with the use of chemometry, the JRC said it was possible to classify samples according to agricultural practices and predict the origin of unknown samples.

“Several markers related to carbohydrate metabolism and plant defense mechanism were identified as responsible for the differences between organic and conventional agricultural systems,”​ the researchers concluded.

This is the first time that a metabolomics approach has been used for organic food authentication purposes in a long-term field study and, by using external validation sample sets, to predict the origin of unknown samples.

Boosting trust in organic foods

According to data from organic trade body IFOAM EU, the total value of the EU organic retail market doubled from €11.1bn in 2005 to €24bn in 2014.

Expansion of farmland cultivated under organic standards has not kept pace with consumer-driven demand growth. In 2014, 10.3m hectares of farmland was managed organically, which corresponds to 5.7% of the total utilised agricultural area in the EU. But the annual growth of organically managed land slowed down to 1.1% in that year, IFOAM revealed in a recent research report, Organic in Europe, ​prospects and developments 2016​.

This imbalance of supply and demand, coupled with the premium consumers are willing to pay for organic products, have the potential to encourage fraudulent organic sales, the JRC warned.

“The overall challenge faced by the organic sector is to ensure a steady growth of supply and ​demand, while maintaining consumers' trust. An element to be considered is the pressure of demand that also increases the risk of fraudulent ​behaviours or other intentional violations. Not only do they harm consumers' interest and cause economic damages distorting competition, but they can also negatively impact on ​reputation of organic operators that are complying with the rules,”​ the JRC said.

The European Union is targeting increased traceability in the organic sector in order to combat potential fraud. Earlier this year, a new system to electronically certify imported organic food and ingredients came into effect​, with the aim of reducing fraud and collecting reliable data on the sector. 

UK-based trade body the Organic Trade Board stressed that organic products are already highly trusted and "welcomed"​ any efforts to further decrease the risk of food fraud. “Organic is one of the most highly regulated areas of the food industry, which gives consumers huge levels of reassurance that what they buy is what they are expecting. We would, of course, welcome anything that can uphold the integrity of the food industry but the certification process for organic itself already makes food fraud an unlikely occurrence,"​ Anna Rosier, OTB director, told FoodNavigator. 

While the researchers noted that further studies are required, they suggested that a pan-European study including greater variability, such as the inclusion of different geographical locations with different pedo-climatic conditions, could allow for the development of robust classification models to be ready for use in food authentication control practices.

Source: Food Chemistry
Volume 239, 15 January 2018, Pages 760-770, doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.06.161
"Metabolomics for organic food authentication: Results from a long-term field study in carrots"
Authors: E. Cubero-Leon, Olivier De Rudder, et al

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