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In the study, headed by professor Xiaonan Lu, food science students used a laser-equipped spectrometer and statistical analysis to learn this better way to identify unwanted animal products in ground beef.
“We developed a rapid, cost-effective, and user-friendly technique for screening ground beef to determine if it has been adulterated with offal (i.e. internal organs),” Lu says. “Our spectroscopic-based method, combined with appropriate statistical analysis, can achieve 100 percent accuracy in differentiating authentic ground beef from meat adulterated with offal, and can identify and quantify the adulterants within five minutes.”
Over the past few years, high-profile scandals in the U.K., Ireland, and Russia have seen lamb, chicken, and rat meat substituted for higher-quality meat products.
Reliable detection techniques to differentiate authentic food from misrepresented food are the last barrier preventing consumers and industries from successfully fighting food fraud. Lu says that this method is ideal for adoption by governmental laboratories and inspection agencies who need to perform regular and frequent analysis of food authenticity.
She explains the method was established by aiming the spectrometer at meat samples they had prepared by grinding together beef and offal from local supermarkets at various concentrations. Since animal products all have different chemical compositions, their molecules absorb and scatter energy from the spectrometer’s laser in different ways. The spectrometer captures these signals to produce an image of each substance, which can then act as a library for comparison with other samples.
“The good thing is that this method doesn’t require highly trained personnel,” Lu says. “It is time-efficient and cost-effective, so less manpower would be needed to frequently test the authenticity of food products. Consumers, industries, and government would be able to minimize the chances of food fraud.”
Not that there aren’t some challenges. While the instrument utilized in the research is commercially available, the part that takes more time to complete is the establishment of a robust database.
“To take full advantage of the method, you need a comprehensive database that stores spectra of authentic products and potential adulterants,” Lu says. “Establishing that database is the major challenge ahead in bringing this method to more widespread use for combating food fraud.”
A Growing Problem
Food fraud is not a new issue, but due to rapid globalization, the traceability of food products and ingredients is becoming more and more difficult.
According to recent estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers, food fraud has risen to be a $40 billion a year problem. And the NFU Mutual Food Fraud Report 2017 revealed one in three people are less trusting of products and retailers than they were just five years ago.
“The importance of the topic centers on trust,” says Adele Adams, director at Adele Adams Associates Ltd. “Primarily it is the consumers trust in the retailer or manufacture’s brand that these efforts are trying to protect. We have seen that shaken to its core by the events around horsemeat.”
Lu notes that having rapid and simple methods for fast, frequent analysis of food authenticity to prevent all parties from suffering the damages that could be brought on by food fraud is therefore vital for combating the problem.
To help prevent food fraud, Adams says there is a definite trend towards more structured and documented risk assessments both in the raw material supply chains and at an onsite level.
“Understanding and mapping the raw material supply chain is the key starting point, as until all the touch points within supply chains are known and mapped they cannot be interrogated for potential threats,” she says. “Obviously, the increased surveillance through established techniques such as DNA testing provides a significant deterrent to the substitution of species, however, claims such as breed and provenance are not as straight forward to prove.”