Making Food Safer Through Law and Technology

Making Food Safer Through Law and Technology

The year 2013 was a big year for food safety in terms of advancements in testing, regulations, and equipment. Of course, food safety also made an impact across mainstream media headlines. One topic that proved most prevalent involved instances of food fraud—two men arrested in London as part of an investigation into beef adulterated with horsemeat; eight managers of the Toulouse, France-based company Spanghero, arrested for fraudulently supplying horsemeat labeled as beef to ready-made meal manufacturer Comigel; and over 900 people arrested in China for food safety violations, including 63 people who sold modified rat, mink, fox, and other meat as lamb. Food fraud, in the form of species misrepresentation, has become a global problem.

The issue here goes beyond deception. Animal species that are not destined to enter the food chain are not subject to the same safety standards as animals meant for human consumption. Their feed is not regulated and their meat not tested for pathogens. Also, veterinary medications can be an issue. For example, horses not raised for human consumption may have been given phenylbutazone, a substance linked to cancer in humans. The European Food Safety Authority and the European Medicines Authority pointed out in a 2013 joint statement that a maximum threshold for carcinogen risk could not be identified; therefore, the substance is banned in animals destined to enter the food chain.

Although media coverage has focused on cases of meat fraud in Europe and Asia, U.S. consumers cannot be complacent about the integrity of their meat labeling. According to international food safety lawyer Cesare Varallo, publisher of, “No one thought before the [European horsemeat] scandal that this could be a real problem, so no one checked for this specific risk.” There were, however, other examples of food fraud brought to the American public’s attention this year, encompassing products like fish, olive oil, fruit juices, and honey.

Species Verification

During the course of 2013, the U.S. FDA finally released the five proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), one of which covers its vigilance over imported foods. Says Varallo, “The FDA rules on imported food are strongly oriented to prevent this type of fraud from happening. Every importer will follow a Foreign Supplier Verification Program to demonstrate that imported food has the same level of safety as domestic food.”

The FSMA does not guarantee the absence of food fraud. However, DNA testing can affirm what species are contained in a piece of meat. Companies looking to verify their meat is not mislabeled may be interested in a product launched in August 2013. Lansing, Mich.-based company Neogen, providers of both ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) species testing kits since 2009, introduced NeoSeek, a species identification lab service. To contract for the NeoSeek service, customers visit the Neogen website to request a test for the species of adulterant they are looking to find in their meat. Neogen will send out a sample shipping kit and the customer sends a 50 gram sample to Neogen’s testing facilities in Lincoln, Neb. Gerry Broski, senior marketing director, food safety for Neogen, says, “We have engineered the sample submission process to be as painless as possible. The samples are shipped to the GeneSeek Lab, and within 48 hours you get an email with DNA-definitive results on raw or cooked samples.”

NeoSeek detects adulteration at levels of 0.1 percent to 1 percent of mislabeled horse, pig, poultry, beef, or sheep meat, which corresponds to USDA MLG protocol of the levels at which food is considered adulterated. If the customer requires precise levels of the adulterant, quantitative results are available.

Looking at Allergens

Also in August 2013, the FDA published a definition of “gluten-free” to be used in voluntary food labeling. Previously there was no official federal definition for the term “gluten-free” used in claims. The new regulation sets a standard of no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, a level that can be detected by scientifically validated, analytical methods. The agency chose this level because certain celiac researchers and some epidemiological evidence suggest most individuals with celiac disease can tolerate trace amounts of gluten in foods (including levels less than 20 ppm) without adverse health effects. FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore explains, “The definition in the rule helps people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity by setting a reliable and consistent standard for the claim on food products.”

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