The adulteration of beef products with horse meat has fortunately not resulted in public health consequences; however, EMA is not always benign. Melamine adulteration of wheat gluten in 2007 caused illnesses and deaths in thousands of pets in the U.S., and melamine-tainted feed entered the supply chain for animals intended for human consumption. A year later, melamine adulteration of dairy products in China resulted in hundreds of thousands of illnesses and at least six infant deaths. In 1981, industrial-grade rapeseed oil that was sold as olive oil in Spain caused more than 20,000 illnesses and at least 300 deaths.
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How Do Incidents Go Undetected?
EMA incidents are challenging for industry and regulators to prevent because the adulterants are usually innocuous and the adulteration is designed specifically not to be detected. Often, the most successful adulterants are novel; therefore, quality assurance testing methodologies are not designed to detect them. For example, in the mid-1980s, sweet white dessert wines in Austria were adulterated with diethylene glycol (an industrial solvent) because it improved the body and sweetness of the wines. At the time, there was no reason to test for the presence of diethylene glycol in wines because it was not an expected adulterant. Since there were no short-term health effects, the adulteration could have continued if a tax inspector hadn’t uncovered the fraud by investigating tax refunds claimed by a wine producer for large quantities of diethylene glycol. Testing methodologies for more commonly adulterated products, such as honey and olive oil, are continually evolving to keep up with advances in adulteration methods. However, analytical methods for food products can be expensive, and it is not practical or feasible to test all food products for every possible adulterant.
Getting Ahead of the Problem
Identification of EMA events must come sooner to mitigate human health consequences and economic loss. Better detection methods are important, but they are not the only solution. Early warning analysis that takes advantage of multiple data sources has the potential to alert us to elevated risk of EMA in certain food products for relatively few resources. Inspection, laboratory testing, and other crucial and cost-prohibitive resources can then be targeted towards the riskiest food products.
Individual industry members and regulatory agencies have much of the information and food system knowledge that could help early identification an adverse food event, but it is not currently compiled for real-time analysis. Collaboration and information sharing between public and private interests are also essential to ensure that the food supply remains well protected and resilient.
The development of data management technologies in which the food and agriculture stakeholders can regularly and proactively share real-time information across the globe is key to identifying risks and initiating the appropriate response to mitigate adverse consequences. Various data sources, compiled and analyzed to detect a signal, can serve as a trigger for decision makers to take action. Using data sources such as weather information, global trade data, pricing indexes, policy changes, and indications of political and civil unrest, we can build algorithms that can assist in identifying the environments where food fraud is likely to occur or may already be in the system.
The NCFPD has initiated research and development of technology solutions, known as the FIDES and EMA projects, which support data fusion, analytics, and dissemination within and across organizations to help identify and warn of food threats such as EMA, provide risk management assessments, and provide decision makers tools to make informed assessments and decisions.
Increased awareness of and research on food fraud provides an opportunity to improve testing methodologies and develop new capabilities for rapidly identifying adulteration in the system prior to seeing adverse health and economic consequences. These dedicated efforts will serve as a deterrent to those seeking to adulterate our food supply.