New Techniques for Tracing Ingredients

It’s like CSI: New scientific techniques can uncover the source of pathogens, contamination, even genetic modification … in foods and their ingredients.

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Traceability is not as easy as it sounds, especially for large-scale producers of food products who must sift through the chemical analyses of their suppliers and distinguish analytical data from allergen information.

Hidden ingredients become an issue for many processors. Ice cream processors, in addition to flagging any wheat component, also must flag the soybean oil-based release agent for their baked bit inclusions because the amount of soybean oil used does not warrant reporting on the nutritional label. Brand owners are now weighing the risks of unintentional noncompliance against reformulation expense to eliminate potential contaminants and error-proof their manufacturing processes and labeling practices.

The blanket Allergy Information approach is tough on brands. It severely restricts selection for allergic individuals who now must avoid a greater number of foods under this approach. This exercise requires comprehensive scouring of the supply chain processes to flag incidentals and processing aids that are not accompanied by their chemical descriptions in the ingredient specification documents. It now matters whether soybean oil is hot-pressed and cold-pressed because the latter allows for an allergenic protein in the oil stream. The rigorous traceability requirements can cause sensitivities for ingredient vendors around intellectual property and reveal more to their competitors than they care to.

Many processors, rather than second-guess the next wave of legislative interpretations, are re-engineering their products and manufacturing processes. Potato chip processors, such as Milwaukee-based Bradley Industries Inc., use highly refined peanut and soybean oils for Door County Potato Chips because these ingredients do not contain the allergenic protein and no allergen labels are needed.

Marketing and markers

Traceability, far from a time- and resource-consuming nuisance, can actually provide a significant marketing opportunity. It can establish product distinctness and choice in markets where, all too often, product differentiation becomes harder and harder to substantiate. Examples are dolphin-safe tuna and fair-trade coffee.

Traceability led Caribou Coffee Co., the nation's second largest non-franchised coffeehouse chain, to niche high-end retailing. Caribou raised the bar for the entire U.S. coffee industry by publicly announcing its commitment to buy coffee from farms that meet the highest standards for the conservation of natural resources and the welfare of workers and local communities, as certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an international not-for-profit and third-party certifier. Caribou's unique "tree to cup" traceability program, which looks out for both its coffee producers and the growing environment, is now attracting "green" consumers in droves.

Ingredient traceability has great implications for premium consumer prices and loyalty. An emerging class of middle- and upper-income consumers willing to pay a premium for products that meet their high standards is revolutionizing the children's food industry. These discriminating consumers are reason enough for processors to seriously reconsider their formulations and establish purity. Assurance that baked goods from Sacramento, Calif.-based Barbara's Bakery are formulated without unnecessary additives is reason enough to make them a "destination product" for these shoppers.

Tools developed for tracing GE materials have gained wide utility in addressing the broader needs today. Food companies can, for example, use polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a test sensitive enough to detect very small amounts of DNA, not only to detect bioengineered material in foods but also to identify the species of the meat or plant source.

For instance, only 15 varieties of rice from the Ganges Plains of India and Pakistan have been approved by authorities in India, Pakistan and the EU as "Basmati." Because Basmati is many times more expensive than normal rice, it's a target for adulteration with less expensive, conventional long grain rice - something that happens frequently and can be discovered with DNA analysis.

Medigenomix, a Eurofins company, has a genotyping method to identify different Basmati varieties and adulteration with non-Basmati rice in very low concentrations, in even highly processed rice products.

Scene of the crime

Food tampering and adulteration are punishable under U.S. law. Major food scares, such as mad cow disease and the threat of bioterrorism, nevertheless have challenged consumer confidence in food processors.

Food forensics presents a critical solution to foodborne illness cases, especially considering how commonplace is litigation involving persons allegedly infected at public food establishments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999 estimated incidents of foodborne illnesses at approximately 76 million per year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Evidence may be circumstantial, but it often results in unwarranted awards to plaintiffs because of public sympathy toward alleged victims. Meticulous recordkeeping and relevant testing technologies are a great insurance in the defense against litigation.

Food ingredients can be contaminated at many points along the supply chain. The raw materials may be delivered contaminated from the farms, they may be infected with pathogens during handling, or they may accidentally get contaminated during distribution and storage. Willful contamination can happen during manufacturing, distribution, in the market or after purchase. Adulteration for economic purposes is another reason that food products may contain contaminants or inferior ingredients.

E. coli 0157:H7 causes some of the most serious forms of foodborne illnesses - often through the contamination of meat products. When an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is suspected, techniques such as pulse-field gel electrophoresis allow for the comparison of the genetic patterns of different E. coli 0157:H7 isolates and can help conclusively establish the chain of participation in a specific outbreak.

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