Global regulators continue to focus on food fraud, whether deliberate or accidental. The food industry has risen to the challenge by finding innovative new tools to monitor food and ingredients along the supply chain. Its next step should be to bring the same level of care to the laboratory, where food samples are tested for quality.
Supply Chain Traceability to Mitigate Adulteration
Before discussing the laboratory, let’s look at the example of the supply chain where food manufacturers have been tremendously successful in using traceability to improve the safety of their products.
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In the global food system, food supply chains have become complicated. The integrity of the supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so food manufacturers are identifying the places on the chain where adulteration is most likely—and then targeting them for special scrutiny.
There are two factors that make it more likely food will be adulterated. The ease of adulteration is one—foods like fruit, vegetables, and whole fish are much harder to adulterate than highly processed foods. A second motivation is financial gain. When crop failures or product shortages drive up food prices, sellers are more likely to substitute a substandard ingredient. That’s why the food industry has an adage about sourcing products, “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.”
To avoid adulteration, suppliers rely on detailed supply chain management that includes history, audits, and product traceability. Traceability today still relies on paper documentation to some extent, but technologies such as RFI (radio frequency identification) devices or simple barcodes have helped eliminate falsification of records as food passes from one producer to another. Food producers are even using blockchain to ensure secure record traceability. The industry has shown it is ready and willing to adopt new technology to keep food safer.
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Analytical Science to Identify Adulteration
But the quality of food products stands not only on the quality of the documentation from the supply chain, but also on the quality of the data from analyzing the product in the lab.
In the laboratory, the scientific community is very good at quickly developing analytical tests for food fraud—but only once a specific threat or vulnerability is identified. Scientists also create analytical tests for unintentional contamination—from poor-quality ingredients, the breakdown of legitimate ingredients, or the manufacturing process. And with heightened concerns about allergens, contamination that may once have been considered “harmless” now needs to be treated seriously. Witness the February 2018 recall of almonds found to contain traces of wheat and soy.
But the volume and reach of the global food chain make it impossible to conduct complex testing on every ingredient or product. As a result, manufacturers often put their faith in certificate of analysis reporting—but that has its own vulnerabilities, as demonstrated by the pet food melanin contamination case.
A more practical approach combines non-targeted screening with statistical analysis of trends and database-matching to look for anomalies. This level of screening usually takes place in governmental or institutional oversight laboratories because it requires sophisticated, expensive instruments like high-resolution mass spectrometers.
The question then becomes, can we rely on the data from these central testing laboratories? Or should we extend the scrutiny we bring to supply chain distribution records to the laboratory test data that supports food integrity?
Concerns About Laboratory Data
The good news is that the specificity and detection limits of analytical science tools continue to advance. But even with the best tests in the world, laboratories still rely on analysts and laboratory staff to perform tests accurately, reliably, and correctly. And the human element is not infallible.