Food Fraud in the Land of Milk and Honey (and Olives)
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Food Fraud in the Land of Milk and Honey (and Olives)

November 20, 2019

Food Fraud in the Land of Milk and Honey (and Olives)

We all like to enjoy our food. Herbs and spices add flavor and aromas to foods in order to entice the senses and build anticipation of an upcoming meal, while products like Manuka honey and extra virgin olive oil provide flavors that are different to conventional commodities.

These premium food products command higher costs, due to the time taken to process or the rarity of any genuine ingredients. Whatever we purchase from the supermarket or grocery store, we expect to receive exactly what it is advertised as.

But how do we know we are getting the genuine product?

Many consumers will trust that any food bought is the genuine thing, and in the majority of cases, what you see is what you get. But then there are those cases where the ingredients advertised are not what is found in the product. In these situations, the consumer has been a victim of food fraud.

Food fraud describes the act of illegally replacing expensive ingredients with cheaper, lower quality alternatives. It costs the food industry billions of dollars every year and can appear in many forms. Food fraud can also be described as food adulteration. Motivated by economic gain, food adulteration refers specifically to incidents where expensive ingredients have been replaced with lower quality alternatives. Related to food adulteration is food mislabeling, where food has been either intentionally or unintentionally mislabeled to advertise food as a different product to its true content.

All food products are susceptible to food fraud. But it is those products that command a higher price point that are typical targets for food fraudsters. For instance, some of the most common food products that fall victim of food fraud are: olive oil, honey, and milk. Each require expertise in characterization instrumentation to distinguish the genuine products from those that have been adulterated.

Milk Powder

With milk powder being one of the most widely traded food products, it is perhaps no surprise that it is susceptible to food fraud. Over the past decade, there have been many high-profile incidents involving milk powder food fraud, including the infamous 2008 melamine scandal in China. Traded according to its protein content, common adulterants in milk can range from relatively harmless additives such as fats and starches, to dangerous chemicals like melamine or hydrogen peroxide.

Outside of its powdered form, milk is a staple of many products. Milk powder is a common ingredient in chocolates, cheese, liquid milks, and cereal bars. It is more than likely that at some point during our day, we will have eaten a milk-containing or milk-derived product. This makes our DairyGuard Milk Powder Analyzer all the more important. Based on near-infrared spectroscopy, it offers a cost-effective and simple solution for identifying food adulteration.

Honey

Food fraud involving honey can come in various different forms. It can be as simple as mislabeling to circumvent labeling regulations – for instance, declaring a sample is pure honey or as a blend of honey and sugar. Or it could involve bulking up the product by adding syrups to increase volume without sufficient declaration. Manuka honey in particular is a frequent victim of food adulteration. It is widely reported that New Zealand produces 1,700 tons of genuine Manuka honey each year, and yet, in the same period, 10,000 tons are sold. The math does not add up.

Our FT-IR instruments play a vital role in uncovering honey fraud, with the chemical spectra used to identify any unexpected additives like corn and rice syrups. The output of FT-IR spectroscopy is maximized when combined with our Adulterant Screen technology, which compares a sample’s spectrum against a known pure sample of the spectrum. We can provide companies with a simple pass/fail answer to the important question: “Is my honey pure?”.

Olive Oil

Demand for olive oil and extra virgin olive oil has increased in recent years due to its popularity in the Mediterranean diet. In particular, extra virgin olive oil is a common target for adulteration, where the pure processed olive oil has instead been replaced with a blend of lower quality oils such as vegetable or sunflower oils.

At PerkinElmer, we use Fourier-transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy to identify any unknown additives or oils in what are labeled as pure oil samples. Despite the different types of oils sharing a similar physical appearance, the chemical backbone of each oil variant is different enough to show variations in the infrared spectra. These spectra are compared against library databases, allowing us to identify and quantify the different types of oil in blends and uncover any suspected adulteration.

For Safer Food

Food fraud impacts us all. It is costly to the food industry and undermines consumer confidence in the quality and integrity of food in the supply chain. To combat food fraud and adulteration, advanced characterization instrumentation needs to be adopted by those companies that work in the industry. Adopting IR spectroscopy or mass spectrometry can help identify unknown or mislabeled products and protect the unsuspecting public from what could be a dangerous product.

Identification of these illegal and occasionally dangerous additives is paramount for protecting consumers. The Spectrum Two N FT-IR instrument coupled with Adulterant Screen software offers a robust, rapid and easy-to-use technique of identifying fraud with a pass/fail result. Our Adulterant Screen software compares sample spectra against a known spectrum from a pre-existent library database for a definitive answer of whether your herb or spice is the real deal.

Further Reading:

Olive oil reference book: http://www.perkinelmer.com/PDFs/downloads/APP_Olive_Oil_Reference_Book.pdf

Detecting honey adulteration: http://www.perkinelmer.com/corporate/stories/detecting-honey-adulteration.html

Identifying melamine contamination: https://www.perkinelmer.com/pdfs/downloads/BRO_011180_01.pdf


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