Fraudulently adulterated food is receiving a lot of attention at the moment. While it is widely acknowledged that food fraud is a large and expensive problem requiring urgent action there is not a lot of practical advice available about exactly what actions food businesses should take to prevent, deter and detect food fraud. And, although published advice about direct action is rare, there is plenty of commentary that discusses the issue in general terms, including one very common refrain: food testing is not the answer.
Food safety hang-ups
One of the reasons we so often hear that testing is not the answer is that many food fraud commentators come from a food safety and quality assurance background. As such, our unwillingness to rely on testing for food fraud can be explained in part by our familiarity with food safety systems. Within the realms of food safety, testing can achieve nothing on its own; the prevention of risks and control of hazards is much more effective and efficient, with testing used simply to verify that the system is working.
For those who are less familiar with food safety systems, let’s take a closer look. For the sake of simplicity, imagine a hypothetical food safety system that is designed solely to prevent the growth of a pathogenic microorganism in salami. If the system relied solely on testing, one would have to take a sample from every pack of salami, test for pathogens and then discard packs which were found to be contaminated. A missed test could have deadly consequences. Worse still, the sampling itself could lead to contamination. A better way is to use preventive control methods to stop hazards before they arise and carefully monitor critical operations in the production process so that the finished product is safe. This combination of prevention and monitoring is the basis for every modern food safety system. Within those systems the food must still be tested to verify that the system is working but in fact every piece of salami that is consumed without causing illness is a form of ongoing verification.
Fraudulently adulterated food is very different from accidentally contaminated food. It usually doesn’t make people sick and can rarely be identified as fraudulent by the consumer. People who adulterate food for financial gain aim to avoid detection and for that reason adulterated food rarely causes acute illness. In fact, the Chinese government is currently assuring its citizens that the large volumes of counterfeit baby formula within that market are safe to consume. There have been instances of fraudulent food that caused illness and death, including the melamine milk scandal in China and toxic mineral oil passed off as olive oil in Spain. In another famous case, a carcinogenic industrial dye was used to make paprika powder appear fresher. In each of these cases it was some time before the link between illness and adulterated food was found.
Criminals are smarter than Salmonella.
The prevention of microbial contamination and growth in food can be achieved in a few simple steps using well-understood methods; Salmonella hasn’t figured out how to outsmart a thermal kill step yet. But people who seek to make money from adulterating food have much more imagination than your average bacterium. While there are only about 120 food borne pathogens known to man, there are almost unlimited ways to tamper with food, meaning many different types of controls are required. Unfortunately, any effective control method can be discovered and then outsmarted by a clever fraudster, making reliance on prevention a risky proposition. And the worst part is that no matter how effective a fraud prevention system is, at the end of the day it is indistinguishable from an ineffective fraud prevention system to the naked eye; without very frequent testing there is no way to know the system is working.
Testing is a key element of effective fraud prevention. I envisage a day when every food manufacturer tests every incoming batch of vulnerable raw material before it is used in their foods, where every supermarket has the technology to verify that their food is authentic before they place it on their shelves and where even local restaurants will have access to technology that they can use in their quest to serve authentic food to their customers. Testing holds the answers to many of our current food fraud challenges. However, testing can be expensive, time consuming and much less effective than we would like.
A key challenge to the efficacy of testing is that when it comes to food fraud we can never be sure of the adulterant that might be present. Many currently available test methods are targeted for a particular adulterant, and are not designed to detect adulterants that are unexpected. Non-targetted tests are rapidly being developed but there are very few that have been properly validated, a process that requires expensive cross-testing against other methods such as botanical testing, DNA-based methods and classical chemistry. The world of microbial food testing has come a long way in the last 30 years; there are now rapid test methods that are fast, easy to use, cheap and effective. During the last two decades microbial testing has developed rapidly and analytical authenticity testing has started to catch up.
In less than five years, claim the makers of new rapid testing technology, we will be able to hold a scanner in our hand that can tell us the entire molecular makeup of our food. I think we will have to wait a little longer than that; food is complex and a huge amount of research will be required before we can properly interpret the results of complex molecular ‘scans’ of every food on the planet. But testing is an important tool in our fight to ensure an authentic food supply, and that’s a goal worth striving for.