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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Ingredient security: Pepsi can
Expert knowledge of chemicals and their breakdown products helped determine that the chemical burns suffered by an Oklahoma citizen in March 1993 resulted from lye that had been added to a can of Pepsi after it was opened.

This capability is of benefit to processors because a vast majority of suspected illnesses are often unrelated to a particular outbreak and proof is paramount to address responsibility and minimize the potential negative impact to companies.

A noteworthy case of accidental contamination during manufacturing is the 1998 diagnosis by Missouri physicians of skeletal fluorosis, a rare disease diagnosed only a handful of times in the U.S. Experts were baffled, since the local drinking water had only about 2.8 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride – well below the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 4.0 ppm.

After eliminating toothpaste, pesticides and the environment, the researchers identified an extra-strength instant tea product as the source (contributing more than 30mg of fluoride per day). Subsequent testing discovered several brands of retail instant teas exceeded the FDA limit of 1.4-2.4 ppm for bottled beverages, and the team published a caution in the January 2005 issue of The American Journal of Medicine that consumption of large volumes of instant tea can be a risk for skeletal fluorosis.

The sleuthing - depending on whether the contaminant has volatile or non-volatile components - may require sophisticated analytical techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry for non-volatile materials and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry combination for volatile components. Ion chromatography and atomic spectrometry are useful for inorganic components such as metals.

Experts at the FDA Forensic Center can home in on the time and place of contamination using various clues, including the extent of physical deterioration of the contaminant, the dissipation of poisons into their chemical components, physical attributes of contaminant and containers and old-fashioned legwork. The FDA knowledge base includes 250 of the most toxic materials commonly available to the public, and the center is equipped for ultra-trace elemental analysis to find contaminants in amounts as small as parts-per-trillion.

While any lab can identify a contaminant such as bleach in carbonated beverages, sophisticated experts know the fate of sodium hypochlorite, the chemical component of bleach, in the beverage and can pinpoint the breakdown products. Such sophisticated knowledge helped determine that the chemical burns suffered by an Oklahoma citizen in March 1993 resulted from hazardous caustic material (sodium hydroxide, lye) added to a can of Pepsi after it was opened. Had it been inside the can, the contents would have corroded the container long before it reached the consumer.

Historically, water and colorings have been used to undercut price, making it difficult for legitimate products to compete and recoup the investment. Of late, sweeteners have entered this fray, with processors either knowingly or unknowingly adulterating premium sweeteners with lower quality ingredients and making claims that cannot be verified.

Economic food fraud involves substituting lesser value ingredients and passing off the finished product as one of higher value. Example include adding dried papaya seeds (a lesser value ingredient) to pepper corns to add bulk and increase yield, or coloring trout to pass it off as the more expensive salmon. Such fraudulent foods cheat processors and consumers out of millions of dollars annually.

Today's processed foods generally are made from ingredients produced all over the world. The ability to validate the entire history of an ingredient or raw material may soon be the price of entry into global trade, as a number of governments are forcing the adoption of traceability systems.

If we are what we eat, it is more important now than ever before to confirm that we are indeed eating what we believe we are eating.



To develop successful traceability programs, get product traceability information from every one your suppliers. Enforce current good manufacturing practices to limit the possibility of cross-contamination.

Tools such as manufacturing execution systems can optimize scheduling to minimize changeovers and segregate products by allergen content to help mitigate the risk of cross-contamination.

Create detailed procurement and production audit trails. Use this information to track and verify material movement through your system and slowly eliminate major compliance "escapes."

Re-engineer products to eliminate the use of materials that contain any of the eight allergenic proteins. This is particularly cost-effective in food products in which the material is an additive or incidental.


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