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Detecting Food Adulteration in Under 30 Seconds

December 08, 2015

Detecting Food Adulteration

The Tangled Food Web

Food is a global commodity. We grow it, eat it, sell it, and it knows no borders. While it is often described in terms of a chain, it is really more of an intricate web of growers, producers, manufacturers, packagers, sellers, and consumers. At each of these touchpoints, there is ample opportunity for something to go wrong, on purpose or by mistake. Either way, most people take for granted that what ends up on their dinner tables is safe to eat.

Sadly, history says we are wrong. The ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of oils and wine over 2,000 years ago. 1 The only difference today is the global scale of food fraud. With the rise of the international economy, a single tainted ingredient like cumin can end up in hundreds of products to sicken countless millions of people around the world. Local issues can escalate into global incidents, such as the 2013 horsemeat scandal in the EU, GMO products from the U.S finding their way into world markets, adulterated olive oil continuing to flow from Italy, and now the tainted spices and herbs scandals from this past spring. 2 At every turn, the opportunity to cut costs and do harm grows in proportion to making more money, says the Global Food Safety Initiative. The task of tracing the sources of contamination—intentional or not—remains a significant challenge that is costing us all as much as £9 billion ($15 billion US) a year. 3

The Promise of Disruptive Technology

Fortunately, these challenges are being overcome by technology solution providers like PerkinElmer, who are helping to redefine the global standards for food safety and authenticity. As a recognized leader in life and environmental health sciences, PerkinElmer is working closely with the food industry to develop several innovative technologies that simplify the task of verifying food safety and quality. How?

One powerful, yet simple, solution is built around PerkinElmer’s Spectrum Two™ IR and Frontier™ FT-NIR spectrometers. Configured with the company’s revolutionary Adulterant Screen™ software, these instruments can test liquids and solids using a Pass/Fail approach for adulterants and authenticity in food at the same time they measure a product’s standard nutritional parameters. Because there is no sample preparation needed, operators do not require a scientific background to get results in under a minute. They simply measure representative samples of ingredients being tested into the system beforehand along with pure samples of the adulterant. At the push of a button, the spectrometer identifies both targeted and non-targeted threats utilizing Adulterant Screen’s advanced algorithms that combine chemometrix modeling and residue analysis. That means both known and unknown adulterants are found in tested samples. Through simple system updates that sensitize the Adulterant Screen system to future suspected ingredients, the system can always be ready to take on the next big adulteration threat. The system’s analytics can also issue statistical probabilities and semi-quantitative amounts of the suspect ingredients, providing labs with focused reports on where to look next in tracking potential adulterants.

Real-time Results

How fast is fast? In a test of five natural and artificial or imitation vanilla extracts, for example, total analysis time for each sample was 15 seconds. In each sample, the instrument rapidly detected the differentiation between natural and artificial vanilla extracts. It also determined the presence of ethyl vanillin in some of the artificial extracts, which can also be used to distinguish further between artificial and natural vanilla extracts. Compared to other techniques, the AxION DSA/TOF MS provides a quick and easy analysis that can improve lab productivity while significantly reducing analysis time and costs in determining food adulteration. 4

With the adoption and deployment of technologies such as those described here, the food industry is now able to adopt a proactive stand in its fight against food fraud right down to the producers’ level. Because of the innovative Adulterant Screen IR software and AxION DSA/TOF MS, enhancing food safety, quality, and traceability are no longer simply global goals, they are achievable objectives.


  1. Food Fraud: A Brief History of the Adulteration of Food,
  2. Your Food May Not Be What You Think It Is, Kern Golden
  3. Food Safety Technologies: Key Tools for Compliance White Paper, Global Food Safety Forum.
  4. Food Fraud: A Brief History of the Adulteration of Food,

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