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Economically Motivated Adulteration (Food Fraud)

Food safety is a complex and multifaceted issue.  Its importance is increasing as a result of the rapid human population growth which is expected to peak at just shy of 10 billion by 2050 according to the United Nations.  Added complexities include ever-increasing global distribution channels alongside the fact that 30% of the global workforce is involved in agriculture, forestry and fishing.

It is of little wonder therefore, that private companies, national laboratories and other authorized organizations are regularly challenged to implement and enforce stringent sanitary protocols in orders to assure public health and safety.

Food fraud can lead to health issues, illness and even death

One of the biggest challenges to ensuring food safety is the increasing prevalence of food fraud.  Consider the food industry in the United States alone which, in 2020, was valued at over $1.8 trillion.  The scale of the complexity of the task at hand as well as the need to ensure food safety.  

Food fraud is known as economically motivated adulteration (EMA).  In essence, it occurs, per the US FDA, when someone intentionally leaves out, takes out, or substitutes a valuable ingredient or part of a food. EMA also occurs when someone adds a substance to a food to make it appear better or of greater value. For example, when manufacturers add a cheaper vegetable oil to an expensive olive oil but sell the product as 100% olive oil, they are cheating their customers. This type of EMA is known as food fraud.

Honey Mixing of honey with cheaper sweeteners such as corn syrup
Olive OilDiluting extra-virgin olive oil with vegetable oil
JuiceMixing expired juice with fresh juice
SpicesUse of lead-based dyes to enhance the color of spices
Examples of Food Fraud

Food fraud is estimated to be a $50 billion industry although the exact economic impact is hard to pinpoint.  EMA goes beyond just economic impacts as it can and has affected consumer trust & confidence levels as well as leading to health issues, illness and even death. Consider the case of the Chinese milk scandal of 2008 where an estimated 300,000 infants drank baby formula laced with melamine leading to kidney failures, inevitable hospitalizations and unnecessary deaths.  Melamine is a synthetic chemical used in plastics and was used to boost the protein content.  

Detecting food fraud requires constant adaptation and monitoring

Detecting food fraud is challenging and authorized organizations, such as the US FDA,  have to be in a state of constant monitoring as well as adaptation to stay on top of it:

  • Gathering information from a variety of sources: In order to spot trends and cases of food fraud, information is gathered from a variety of sources including consumer or industry complaints, news articles, science publications and so forth.  
  • Targeted & routine sampling assignments:   For example, in 2016 and 2017, the US FDA sampled imported palm oil for the presence of Sudan dyes (red industrial dyes that can cause cancer and are illegal to use in food). The dyes were found in about 16% of the tested oil and were refused entry as well having the manufacturers put on an import alert to prevent future potentially illegal products from entering the U.S.
  • Confirming Food Fraud Through Testing: Along with microbiological testing, molecular techniques such as DNA extraction, PCR and sequencing are now commonly used in food products analysis to reach unparalleled accuracy. Equipped with nucleic acid extraction systems, authorized bodies (national laboratories, inspection service, fraud control services) can take samples from food providers and accurately test them for possible food fraud (in addition to other points such as non-compliance in cold chain, GMO content, pathogen contaminations (bacteria, virus), and for forth).

Food fraud is a serious issue as noted.  The application of molecular biology in food quality tests certainly helps to counter various fraudulent activities.  Get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help with detection of not just food fraud, but also food pathogens, GMO and microorganisms of interest.   

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