Food fraud

Food fraud is increasingly becoming a matter of public interest for consumers and food manufacturers who buy raw materials or intermediate products from around the world for their production. As a result of the internationalisation of commodity flows and the increasing scarcity of natural resources, criminality in the global trade of foodstuffs is growing.

Thus, food fraud is increasingly becoming a focal point for national and international supervisory authorities. Initiated by the British FSA (Food Standards Agency) and the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration), Europol and Interpol have already run global campaigns to combat misleading and fraudulent practices.

The law responds

EU Control Regulation no. 2017/625, which comes into effect on 14 December 2019, will make food fraud an obligatory matter for all member states. Furthermore, food fraud is also the subject of major international standards such as IFS, FSSC 22000, etc. Moreover, in Germany the Max-Rubner Institute (MRI) has been tasked with the establishment of a National Reference Centre for the Authenticity and Integrity of the Food Chain. There are also plans to make the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) the European reference centre for food fraud.

Potential health risks from food fraud

Food fraud is no longer simply a case of business crime for financial gain (e.g. by substituting cheaper horsemeat for beef). Increasingly it is becoming a health issue, with the deliberate risk to consumers coming into sharper focus. An example here is bulking up ground hazelnuts or garlic powder with peanut flour or shells, which could trigger potentially serious allergic reactions. Another example is the use of carcinogenic colourants to dye foodstuffs to simulate a missing ingredient (e.g. the use of Sudan red in spices).

The following forms of fraud with foodstuffs are known

  • Addition of an ingredient/substance for bulking up purposes
  • Addition of an ingredient/substance to feign better quality
  • Combining different batches of a single foodstuff which were sourced from different geographical regions
  • False declarations about origin, variety, species, etc.
  • Advertising conventional foodstuffs as organic

The foodstuffs most commonly affected include:

  • Milk, meat, fish
  • Olive oil and other cooking oils
  • Spices
  • Wine and fruit juices
  • Honey
  • Coffee, tea
  • Organic products

Detective work in the lab

The ifp has responded to these challenges. As part of our accreditation as an inspection body as per ISO 17020, we also offer our clients a service in which raw materials are traced right back to the field and assessed. Together with our associated partner Agroisolab, we also offer analytical verification procedures.

1. Stable isotope analysis or IRMS

The stable isotope ratio of elements such as oxygen, hydrogen or nitrogen is determined by isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS). Isotopes are different variants of these elements, which differ only in the number of neutrons in the nucleus and thus their mass. These isotopes exist in a certain ratio to each other in every part of the world, thus making it possible to determine the origin of biological samples through database matching. This is also referred to as the physical fingerprint.

2. Mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS; Triple-Quad)

The proteins in the foodstuff are tryptically digested following reduction and alkylation and chromatographically separated by HPLC. Following ionisation and transfer to the mass spectrometer, specific peptides are selected in the first quadrupole based on their m/z ratio (parent ions) and fragmented in the collision chamber (second quadrupole). In the third quadrupole, individual fragments are selected according to their m/z ratio (daughter ions) and detected.

3. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (H-NMR)

The structure and position of the molecules in relation to each other are measured in the magnetic field. This shows the structure and dynamics of molecules and enables the concentration to be determined. Like IR processes, NMR is a non-target analysis.

4. Infrared process (IR)

Infrared spectroscopy is also referred to as molecule spectroscopy. Infrared light stimulates molecular vibration in the analysed samples. This stimulation is depicted as absorption lines in the infrared spectrum. Each molecule produces a unique infrared spectrum – like a fingerprint. This makes it possible to identify substances by way of infrared spectroscopy.

5. Gene sequencing and SNP analyses

Sequence analyses allow the species to be uniquely identified from meat, fish or vegetable samples. Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNP), i.e. individual base pair mutations in the genotype, are used to distinguish between types or varieties of species, which is significant for fruit in particular.

6. Polymerase chain reaction (real-time PCR)

PCR can be used to detect contamination or the addition of undeclared ingredients on a molecular-biological basis. Examples include the target-specific verification of horsemeat in beef products or apricot stones in marzipan. So-called primers are used to reproduce specific DNA sections of the target organism, which are then detected by probes with fluorescent markers.

7. Immunological assays

Fraud can also be proven by immunoassays. Target-specific antibodies are used here; together with the proteins of the target organism, they form a sandwich complex and ultimately furnish proof via a gold marking (rapid test) or via an enzyme-based colour change (ELISA). This is how bulking agents with allergenic potential such as peanut shells can be identified.