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Food safety as a global challenge

Food safety as a global challenge

What makes something “authentic”?

Whether a foodstuff is “authentic” – i.e. whether it is genuine or original – is of considerable importance not only ­for the complex and global procurement chain that drives the food processing/­manufacturing industries but also for consumer safety.

Nor is the counterfeiting of food products – ­often referred to in common parlance as “food fraud” or “food fakery” – by any means a modern problem. In centuries past, flour was adulterated with chalk or other powdered substances – some of them actually poisonous – honey with starch syrup and butter with synthetic butter (margarine). In the present day, profit-hungry food fakers continue to make headline news, with horrifying examples including the melamine affair, the horsemeat scandal that recently came to light and cases involving the processing of meat no longer deemed fit for human consumption. These cases not only constitute food fraud but also involve the repeated and deliberate endangerment of consumer health. Experience of such incidents has shown us that food fraud is a hot-button topic for consumers. In extreme cases, consumers may even respond to the scandal by avoiding certain kinds of products entirely, thereby posing an existential threat not only to the affected company but to entire sectors of the industry. For companies in the food industry, safeguarding themselves against potential involvement in a food scandal is therefore an essential precondition to remaining both productive and competitive.

In Europe, consumers are protected by legislation that prescribes the end-to-end traceability of food and raw materials throughout all of the various stages within food production, processing and distribution. While this quality control process often uses shipping papers as a common denominator, the scandals mentioned above show that these papers alone offer no guarantees for the authenticity of the shipment content, since the deliberate relabelling or mislabelling of cheap goods as premium products can easily undermine these well-intentioned attempts at ensuring traceability. The problem is aggravated by the fact that many raw materials cannot be procured from within the European Union or are preferentially sourced from outside the European Economic Area for commercial reasons. Worldwide, food fraud most commonly affects goods such as olive oil, fish and organic foods, as well as commodities for example spices, tea, cocoa, coffee or nuts. Globally, revenue from counterfeit or adulterated raw materials and foods amounts to tens of billions of euros every year. This figure highlights the fact that the quality control strategies practiced to date are unequal to the problem. In addition, some imported commodities are produced by manufacturing processes that do not meet European standards, and are therefore subject to specific customs regulations in certain cases. One way of circumventing these regulations is to fake the country of origin on the commodity label.

Compared to centuries past, contemporary challenges are therefore considerably more complicated and, due to the global material cycles now in place, include determining the commodity type (e.g. variety), identifying the exact geographical origin (e.g. to verify a product as a regionally-protected food) and distinguishing between specific types of production (ecological and sustainable vs. conventional agriculture).

To give the food industry peace of mind in the contexts mentioned above, more reliable strategies and solutions are required, capable of ­facilitating the unique characterisation of raw materials. This process must also attend to the fact that many of our “modern-day fraudsters” also have a scientific background and a sound working knowledge of the methods used within corporate quality control or regulatory surveillance. As a consequence, product fakery can be modified and refined to an extent where detection becomes ever more problematic.

As a general rule, the authenticity or originality of commodities can be determined using a sufficient quantity of valid and stable biomarkers – especially in terms of interaction with the environment.

Three fundamental prerequisites can be summarised for this approach.

// Each individual (microorganism, animal or plant) – and thus every commodity – can be described by its endogenous endowment. Endogenous processes are coded ­using the platform of DNA and expressed as proteins (the proteome), which are in turn involved in the formation and breakdown of metabolic end products (the ­metabolome).

// The levels of genetic expression mentioned above, including the iso­topic signature and the identification of rare earths characteristic for ­certain geographical locations can be influenced by exogenous, ­natural factors (solar radiation, composition of the subsoil, etc.) or anthropogenic factors (pesticides, fertilisers, etc.) across a wide range of timescales. The degree to which a raw ­material is influenced by exogenous factors depends on its surroundings and exposure, i.e. the effect duration.

// The profile, consisting of various elements, isotopes and molecules – and comparable with the uniqueness of a human fingerprint – unambiguously defines both the type of raw material involved and its source/origin (variety, provenance, environment, climate and soil quality) and the type of cultivation involved (organic/conventional agriculture).

While already deployed within food analysis, the individual technologies necessary (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and isotopolomics) tend to produce results that are rarely ­unambiguous and occasionally rather hard to decipher. Accordingly, consistent application followed by the correlation of the various perspectives is the only way to ensure a system-wide overview of a biological system and its responses to both internal and external influences, such as can then be applied in order to determine the authenticity of foods and raw materials.

As a first step in differentiating a selection of sample populations, one option is to perform non-target screening for the individual component groups. This hypothesis-free approach enables the identification of marker substances by a process whereby the comparably large volumes of data obtained are reduced via multivariate analysis to the analytes exhibiting the greatest variance, contributing to distinctions between the sample populations. Ultra-high-resolution instrumentation-based methods are also applied, so as to maximise the quality of the data and thus increase the likelihood of teasing out divergences between the individual sample populations. Targeted analyses can then be run on the biomarkers identified by the above process to achieve their absolute quantification.

Picture: © istockphoto.com | olvas

L&M int. 1 / 2015

The articles are publishes in issue L&M int. 1 / 2015.
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