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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By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor


Ingredient security: Art photo of doberman guarding food ingredients
The pedigree of food matters now more than ever. Ingredient traceability has become a critical issue for food processors.

The pedigree of food has never mattered as much as it does today, and for different reasons to different stakeholders in the food supply chain. The imperative to know what is in our food and where each of the ingredients came from has made food traceability vital around the globe.

It is no wonder that a new and burgeoning field is food forensics: the unique application of advanced analytical testing and microbial testing techniques to uncover or determine links between food production and illness outbreaks, crimes, accidental contamination and spoilage.

The complexity of food production and manufacturing, and the range of reasons for knowing the history of our food, means no tracking system can ever be truly comprehensive. For example, tracing the coffee beans in one's cappuccino may reveal the formulation at the Starbucks store and where the various ingredients originated, perhaps identifying the bean roaster, the coffee variety and the farm, whether shade-grown or cultivated, and even if harvested by children or mechanically. But the location and proximity of the field to other genetically engineered (GE) and possibly allergenic or even hazardous materials will be unknown.

The system also cannot track the microbiological conditions where the seeds were stored, nor if any hazardous material was shipped alongside. The system certainly cannot confirm "adventitious presence" (AP) - low levels of unintended materials, such as a cross-fertilized seed that can happen simply because of natural inter-variety and inter-species reproduction. So, if the coffee seeds contained seeds accidentally produced by the cross-fertilization of coffee with, say, peanuts or soy - or even a potentially toxic species - there would be no way to know about it.

A comprehensive system that can track every aspect of product history would be cost-prohibitive. However, at least adequate systems designed for relevancy to the business are a necessary investment. "Inadequate traceability is a liability and not a saving on financial investment," believes Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, a London-based smart packaging and tracking technology firm.

Harrop illustrates how poor traceability greatly escalated costs and negatively affected businesses. In 1990, contamination with benzene, a poisonous and potentially carcinogenic substance, forced the French company Perrier to withdraw 70 million bottles of water from U.S. and Canadian markets. Perrier's inability to trace the source of the problem or identify the cause quickly enough led to a huge loss in consumer confidence and trust, and withdrawal of an additional 90 million bottles globally at an estimated cost of $263 million.

Although the more recent case of mad cow disease in Washington state was contained, about 50 countries stopped importing U.S. beef following the discovery. The estimated $4.4 billion loss in export revenues was partly because it was impossible to trace all the other cows that ate the suspected feed.

Ingredient traceability

Traceability in the food supply chain may be internal or external. Internal traceability entails one-up, one-down links at each stage in the production of a food item. The processor must document who it bought materials from (below them in the food chain) and who receives the products (above them in the food chain). Much of the food traceability legislation relates to internal traceability.

External or "chain" traceability is complex and often involves several countries with different laws and standards and is much more difficult to regulate and implement than internal traceability. Traceability is effective only when information is shared among all links in the chain. The amount of information that should be shared along the chain in order to achieve full traceability while preserving competitive advantage, however, is an ongoing struggle for many companies.

Ingredient traceability has become a critical matter for food processors. The new Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires food products to have "plain English" label descriptions of any ingredients that contain derivatives or components of the major eight food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans. Just "cookie dough" will no longer be adequate. Instead it must specify the cookie dough ingredients - wheat flour, butter, sugar, etc. - and include in the allergen section a "contains [ingredient]" statement.


Ingredient security: Door County Potato Chips
Bradley Industries Inc., uses highly refined peanut and soybean oils for Door County Potato Chips. These ingredients do not contain allergenic proteins, so no allergen labels are needed.

That FALCPA has no guidance on ingredient thresholds is a vexing issue. This affects all products that do not have an allergen in their formulation but which are produced in a facility that processes products with a known allergen. In addition to cleaning equipment between batches and scheduling allergen-containing production after allergen-free batches, the processor has to print advisory statements such as "manufactured on equipment that also processes wheat" on the labels.

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