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Food Fraud Fighters Go High Tech

September 03, 2015

Food Fraud Fighters Go High Tech

Adulterant Screen quickly detects food adulteration


It came like a hard slap to the face for most people in the developed world. How could horsemeat end up in the human food supply chain? Sure, stories about food fraud and contamination in the developing world seem commonplace. The infamous melamine milk scandal of 2008 sickened hundreds of thousands of children and led to the deaths of at least six infants in China.1 More children died in India in 2013 when they ate school lunches tainted with an insecticide.2 But Western Europe in the 21st Century?

One thing the horsemeat scandal of 2013 proved beyond a doubt is the global scale of food adulteration. USA Today reported that tracing horsemeat back to its source was systemic. In a matter of weeks, investigators found deliberately tainted meat throughout most of Western Europe and in a variety of products, from Swedish meatballs to burgers.3

Across the pond, U.S. food experts uneasily admitted that consumers might also be susceptible, since a single pound of ground beef could originate from as many as 400 different cows. "If there was a lot of horsemeat around, it could easily get mixed in and nobody would notice if nobody checked," Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University, told USA Today. 4

The sorry fact is food fraud, or the intentional defrauding of food and food ingredients for economic gain, is still on the rise. So long as there is a profit to be made, everything from pricey olive oil, honey, fish, spices, and whiskey to fruit juices, energy drinks, and nutraceuticals are all subject to adulteration.5 There are so many adulterated products, in fact, that the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (better known as the USP) maintains a global food fraud database to track problematic food ingredients as well as detection methods.6

A Novel Approach to Detect Food Fraud

Food fraud is as ancient as history itself. What is new is the ability to detect food fraud quickly using advanced technology. Paired with PerkinElmer’s FT-IR and NIR spectroscopy instruments, the company’s revolutionary Adulterant Screen software, for instance, offers a an easy-to-use and unique solution that confirms the authenticity and nutritional value of food products in a single easy step. No complex sample preparation or scientific background is needed. Sophisticated algorithms that combine modeling and residual analysis for a library of adulterants are already preloaded to allow for the detection of both targeted and nontargeted ingredients and alert users with a simple red light/green light system in under a minute. That means there is no room for error or for a company’s brand to be at risk from either known or unknown adulterants.

How It Works

“The Adulterant Screen system has a library of spectra from unadulterated samples and pure adulterants registered in the software,” says Rob Packer, senior manager, food strategy, at PerkinElmer. “Additional adulterants can also be added easily to the library for future testing,” he says, adding that PerkinElmer has been working closely with the food industry to thwart adulteration using science.

Packer says the Adulterant Screen technology is an outcome of PerkinElmer’s expertise in sample variability in the pharmaceutical sector. “Manmade samples do not vary that much, but nature does not work that way,” Packer notes. “Milk powder from the UK, for example, may differ from China and also if you buy it from multiple sources. Adulterant Screen is able to measure and build in the variation to identify adulterants with the utmost sensitivity.”

Equally important, Adulterant Screen software can also estimate the level of adulterants found in samples without the need for extensive quantitative modelling. “It can detect adulterants in the 0.1% - 10% range, and can be used to screen a host of food products from liquid milk, honey, maple syrup, and coffee to olive oil, cocoa powder and spices,” Packer says, adding that for the first time, there is now a real-time test for those things that you don't know...the unknown unknowns... that are in our foods. That level of knowledge is not only priceless, it provides piece of mind guaranteed.


  1. Timeline: China milk scandal, BBC News, January 25, 2010.
  2. “Arab Spring” in India for Food Fraud?, Michigan State University, Food Fraud Initiative, July 2013.
  3. Horse meat found in IKEA meatballs, USA Today, February 2013.
  4. Ibid.
  5. What’s In Your Food? A Look at Food Fraud, Food Safety News, April 2015.
  6. U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) Food Fraud Database.

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