The bad news began to leak just as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were starting: Adulterated infant formula was sickening babies in China. After testing, the formula was found to contain melamine, a chemical that is used to produce plastics and coatings and that can cause kidney damage when ingested. It also can be used to increase the nitrogen content in diluted milk, making it look as though the milk has more protein when it is tested for quality. That is what happened in China, where the adulterated milk ultimately caused illnesses in more than 50,000 infants and killed six.
Melamine was found in other products, including eggs and dry milk, sold by the company that produced the infant formula, and some of the products found their way around the world in candies and other foods and drinks. The incident stands as one of the most poignant impacts on the beverage industry and underscores the importance of testing these products for quality and safety.
Adulteration remains a threat today, with supply chain disruptions and baby formula shortages raising product vulnerability issues. Some products may contain substituted ingredients because there are shortages of the original ingredients. Other switches are made for economic gain, to swap out a more costly ingredient with a cheaper one. Any switched ingredients need to be tested because there can be health consequences to consumers.
“Any time there is a shortage, that brings up potential vulnerabilities in the supply chain as far as adulteration,” says Daniel Berg, analytical services manager for Eurofins Food Chemistry Testing in Madison, Wisc. “There’s a lot of need to further verify that the product being produced is safe and formulated with the same quality.”
Testing for adulteration is a growing area in beverage testing, says Tarun Anumol, PhD, director of global food and environment markets at Agilent Technologies in Wilmington, Del. The company sells equipment such as mass spectrometers and gas chromatographs that can detect molecular mass to four decimal places of accuracy. “You typically see this [testing] in higher value, economically upscale items such as alcoholic beverages like spirits, distills, and some beers,” he says. “But the onus falls more on the manufacturer than on regulations because they need to protect their brand identity.” Substitutions can include taking out one flavor and adding another that costs less. Agilent’s equipment can differentiate specific molecules and fraudulent chemicals or flavors, he says.
What to Test
Aside from adulteration tests, beverages and their ingredients are checked for nutritional content, contaminants, allergens, pathogens, and taste, among other factors. The testing can be conducted at various stages in the product’s lifecycle, starting with ingredient testing, tests at a co-packer, and tests at the manufacturer or even at the retailer. Tests can be done either in house or at independent testing laboratories. Some manufacturers may want to outsource pathogen culture tests to an independent laboratory, for example, to avoid possible contamination of their product at the factory, says Berg.
A beverage must contain what its label claims it does. This is especially true if they are “functional” beverages with added vitamins or protein. It is important to have the correct amounts of ingredients in a drink, as more or less protein, for example, could negatively affect a consumer’s health. That includes the amount of sugar, especially if there is a “sugar-free” claim, and the alcohol content, says Dr. Anumol. Approximately 100 parameters are tested in basic nutrition, safety, and quality checks, although producers can choose to test for more.
Another large class of chemicals that are tested are pesticides. A 2008 study in the journal Analytical Chemistry heightened concern about pesticides in fruit-based soft drinks, although drinks sampled from the United States had relatively low levels compared with those in the United Kingdom and Spain. The study still raised concerns globally about what pesticides are used on fruit that ends up in beverages and water sources used in manufacturing that might contain chemicals from runoff.