Karen Everstine, PhD, MPH, senior manager, scientific affairs with Decernis/FoodChain ID, and Jennifer van de Ligt, PhD, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, discuss the latest tools and techniques used to detect food fraud.
Q: How do you define food fraud?
A: Food fraud is generally defined as the intentional misrepresentation of foods or food ingredients for economic gain. The US FDA has defined what they call “economically motivated adulteration,” which involves the substitution or addition of a substance for the purpose of increasing the apparent value or reducing the cost of its production. The Global Food Safety Initiative (a private food safety benchmarking organization that is widely used within industry) defines food fraud as “deception of consumers using food products, ingredients, and packaging for economic gain and includes substitution, unapproved enhancements, misbranding, counterfeiting, stolen goods, or others.”
In contrast to food defense and intentional adulteration, the people perpetrating food fraud do not intend to make consumers sick. If consumers become ill, the adulteration will likely be detected. The perpetrators generally want to avoid detection so that the fraud can continue.
Q: When did food fraud testing become a major scientific field?
A: Methods for testing foods for potential adulteration or fraud have been developed and published for hundreds of years. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed due in large part to the work of Harvey Washington Wiley to develop methods for detecting adulterated foods. As far back as 1820, a chemist named Friedrich Accum published a Treatise on Adulteration of Food based on his work testing foods for adulteration with harmful substances. Of course, there have been quite substantial advances in testing methods over the past 10 or 20 years.
Q: What kinds of food or beverages are most commonly counterfeited?
A: We don’t know the true scope or occurrence of food fraud due to the fact that much of it likely goes undetected. However, we do know that certain products continue to be prone to fraudulent adulteration. These include herbs and spices (especially ground spices), alcoholic beverages, fish and seafood, certain meat products (especially if they are ground or processed), dairy products (in certain parts of the world), honey, and olive oil (especially extra virgin). Food products that carry a label denoting certain production practices (such as organic, kosher, halal, and others) have also been documented as fraud prone over recent years.
Q: How common/prevalent is food adulteration?
A: We don’t know for sure how common fraudulent adulteration is globally. It is difficult to estimate the occurrence of a crime that is designed not to be detected. The prevalence of food fraud is also likely to be both commodity- and region-specific. Certain groups have done work to try and estimate the prevalence of fraud; for example, Oceana has conducted several retail seafood sampling surveys and found relatively high levels of species misrepresentation in certain varieties of seafood. A few years ago, Queen’s University Belfast published a study on oregano adulteration and also found unexpectedly high levels of adulteration with substances such as olive and myrtle leaves.
Q: What kind of educational or professional background is useful for this career?
A: There are various disciplines that lend themselves to food fraud prevention and risk mitigation. Analytical chemistry is one of them. However, there are many other professions and disciplines that have a role in food fraud prevention. Food safety professionals, data scientists, supply chain and procurement experts, and even criminologists play an essential role in reducing the risk of food fraud.
Q: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to detecting food fraud?
A: One of the challenges is detecting the unexpected. Adulterants that are known can be monitored; however, the next adulterant may be unforeseen. When melamine adulteration of vegetable proteins and milk happened in 2007-2008, that was viewed as unexpected at the time. It is important to be able to anticipate both the known potential adulterants and those that may be novel.
In addition, perpetrators of food fraud often understand the techniques and technologies used to detect food fraud and use methods of adulteration that would not be detected. When detection methods shift, the way that adulteration occurs will also shift to remain undetected.
Q: What are the most important or commonly used kinds of lab equipment when testing for food fraud?
A: Detection of food fraud requires a range of analytical techniques and methods. These may range from fairly standard food nutrient evaluations and visual observation to advanced analytical chemistry, genomic, and microscopy techniques. The techniques used to detect food fraud continue to evolve as perpetrators adapt their adulteration methods to fool the improving testing methods.
Q: Have there been any major developments or advances in the food fraud testing industry in recent years?
A: Advances in food chemistry and evaluation enable advances in food fraud detection. One of the major recent advances in the food fraud testing industry is the development of “untargeted” or “non-targeted” methods for authentication. The basic idea is that a sample can be tested against a known set of verified authentic materials to determine if its composition is within a range of parameters to indicate it is not adulterated. If that is not the case, the sample can be considered possibly adulterated and targeted testing can confirm the nature of the adulterants.
Unfortunately, with the perishable nature of many foods and the economics of food production, it is not feasible to test for potential food fraud at multiple points in the supply chain. Thus, some very important advancements in food fraud risk mitigation are not test methods at all. Rather, they are informatic methods that allow the food industry to track and trace food products from farm to fork while identifying patterns of historical risk to target heightened analytical screening.
Q: What do you think the future holds for the food fraud testing industry?
A: As mentioned above, non-targeted testing is one area that shows real promise for enabling authentication screening for food products. Traceability and supply chain software advancements that have occurred since the FDA required supply controls as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act also have the ability to revolutionize food fraud detection. Imagine a future where a company identifies a potential adulteration event and can immediately trace back every supplier of that product back to the farm level. This type of transparency would increase the risk of being detected to such a level that fraud prevalence should decrease.
Q: What kind of research/ work are you currently doing to help combat food fraud?
A: At Decernis, we continue to track public reports of food fraud from various sources (media reports, the scientific literature, etc.) to standardize data that supports risk assessments. This helps the food industry and other stakeholders put in place strategies to prevent fraud in their supply chains. We also work directly with industry to help them conduct vulnerability assessments and hazard analyses and we partner with groups that are developing the next generation of data tools for anticipating food fraud.
At FPDI, we focus on intentional adulteration that has the potential to result in wide-scale public health harm. Although food fraud should not result in public health harm, there are many incidents where the adulterant resulted in public harm. These include incidents where unlabeled allergens or unapproved and injurious food additives were added. We provide robust education and training to help our partners understand the risks of, and how to protect against, both food fraud and intentional adulteration.
Karen Everstine, PhD, MPH, is senior manager, scientific affairs with Decernis/FoodChain ID, a company that supports food industry regulatory compliance. She was integral to the development of the Food Fraud Database and continues to serve as technical lead and subject matter expert. She has broad food protection experience in research-based and applied roles in academia, government, and non-profit organizations. She completed her PhD and MPH degrees at the University of Minnesota, where she received a Department of Homeland Security Career Development Grant. She has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and trade journal pieces, and is currently co-editing a book on food fraud mitigation with Elsevier.
Jennifer van de Ligt, PhD, serves as the director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota where she focuses on building collaborations to advance food and feed security, safety, defense, and supply-chain resilience. She also serves as director of the Integrated Food Systems Leadership program, an online learning program dedicated to improving the leadership and systems thinking capabilities of early to mid-career professionals affiliated with any aspect of the food system. She has an extensive background in animal feed and human food production, nutrition, modeling, and regulations, with academic, industry, and global perspectives.