Olive Oil, Milk, Honey Among Food Ingredients Most Vulnerable to Fraud, Says USP Database

April 9, 2012

USP says the database is the first known public database of its kind to compile reports on food fraud and economically motivated adulteration in food.

Olive Oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee, and apple juice are the top seven food ingredients subject to economically motivated adulteration, according to a food-fraud database created by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP; Rockville, MD).

USP says the database is the first known public database of its kind to compile reports on food fraud and economically motivated adulteration in food. The database also contains records of analytical detection methods used to detect adulterants.

Dr. John Spink of Michigan State University, one of the researchers for the database along with Drs. Jeffrey C. Moore (lead author) and Markus Lipp of USP, said that the hope is to bring more attention to the issue of food fraud. “This database is a critical step in protecting consumers. Food fraud and economically motivated adulteration have not received the warranted attention given the potential danger they present.” The food-fraud database was recently analyzed in the April issue of the Journal of Food Science.

 

Avoiding Detection

According to USP, current food protection systems may not be designed to detect “the nearly infinite number of potential adulterants that may show up in the food supply”-especially because adulterants are often unconventional and specifically chosen to avoid detection through routine analysis.

“Melamine, for example, was considered neither a potential contaminant nor an adulterant in the food supply before the episodes of adulteration of pet food in 2007 and infant formula and other milk products in 2008 (with tainted products still appearing sporadically today, principally in China),” said USP in a press release. “Although, as records from this database indicate, melamine was used as an adulterant to mimic protein as early as 1979; however, this remained virtually unknown until 2007. Hence, testing for melamine was not included in routine quality assurance or quality control analyses.”

Also, food ingredients and additives are unique in that their properties can be very similar to those of other substances, USP added. “Glycerin, for example, is a sweet, clear, colorless liquid that is difficult to differentiate by sight or smell from other sweet, clear, colorless liquid syrups-including toxic diethylene glycol, which in the past has been substituted for glycerin with deadly consequences,” USP stated. “Diethylene glycol has been fraudulently added to wines, and also used as an adulterant of glycerin used in pharmaceuticals.”

 

Database Could Help

The USP database will help track adulteration patterns, providing background for evaluating current and emerging risks of food fraud, said USP.

“In addition to providing a baseline understanding of the vulnerability of individual ingredients, the database offers information about potential adulterants that could reappear in the supply chain for particular ingredients,” it stated. “For example, records in the database regarding melamine as an adulterant for high-protein-content ingredients date back to 1979.”

For the database, USP researchers compiled a total of 1,305 records of food fraud, based on a total 660 scholarly, media, and other publicly available reports. USP defines food fraud as it was recently defined in a report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security: “the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”

USP’s Expert Panel on Food Ingredient Intentional Adulterants also defines fraud as spiking, such as “the fraudulent addition of nonauthentic substances or removal or replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge for economic gain of the seller.”

The database also takes a look at analytical testing strategies for detecting food fraud. USP says that while commonly used methods currently test for the absence of specific adulterants, those tests may not necessarily detect the presence of unknown adulterants-something that compendia like USP’s Food Chemicals Codex, which tells testers what should be present in an authentic food ingredient, might be better at finding.