Economically motivated fraud and adulteration of food and beverage products goes back millennia.
The Roman philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder actually complained about premium wines blended with inferior grapes in the first century A.D. Today, misrepresentation is almost enshrined in practice: Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon only has to have 75 percent Napa cabernet grapes; the balance can be 15 percent reds from other California locales and 10 percent cheaper Napa varietals.
Whether it’s shark sold as swordfish or olive oil cut with sunflower oil, the victim is the end consumer. Retailers, restaurants and food companies play the role of intermediaries in the supply chain, and if they paid for grouper but got catfish, well, most likely some schmuck pays the retail price for grouper.
In typically tortured fashion, the FDA contorted itself in the rule-making process for the Food Safety Modernization Act, drawing a distinction between food fraud that poses a health threat and fraud driven by economic gain. The former is subject to preventive controls; the latter is relegated to food defense and does not require preventive steps.
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards don’t slice the bologna so thinly, lumping both under the straightforward need for enterprise risk management. To be certified under GFSI standards like BRC and SQF, companies need to have fraud prevention programs in place.
There’s no shortage of tools to stop fraud in its tracks. Gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and whole genome sequencing are among the available technologies, although the cost and time needed to get a positive ID make them prohibitive. The need is for simple, inexpensive and easily administered tests to confirm raw materials and ingredients are what they are purported to be.
Fortunately, DNA profiling is delivering more affordable tools and gaining commercial traction. Species-specific molecular probes that draw a sample for a polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) test in a lab can deliver a confirmation or rejection in a few hours. The concept is similar to home pregnancy test kits, with the added enhancement of a PCR machine that some food companies already have on site for pathogen detection tests.
Two professors at the University of Guelph in Ontario founded Tru-ID Ltd. three years ago to develop such probes. Botanist Steven Newmaster and geneticist Robert Hanner also are involved in the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario & Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, which is developing a DNA Reference Sequencing Library. To date, DNA bar codes for 10,000 fish species have been developed.
The biodiversity library already covers many species of no commercial value. Food companies don’t need a card to that library: They simply want a red light/green light answer to whether or not they are taking delivery of the fish they ordered. They can get that answer quickly and easily with PCR analysis that compares DNA extracted from the sample with a colorimetric bar code of the nucleotides of the real deal.
Tru-ID’s species-specific probes are being commercialized in Instant Labs, a Baltimore maker of small PCR machines that can be used by a technician with minimal training. Probes for Chesapeake Bay blue crab and several species of salmon are being distributed through Instant Labs, which also offers Elisa test kits for food pathogens.
Mainstream food companies have been slow to embrace DNA bar-coding, but Tru-ID recently scored a success in the herbal supplement sector. Nature’s Way markets Devil’s Claw, an anti-inflammatory that often is adulterated. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman secured cease-and-desist orders last year against more than a dozen marketers of Devil’s Claw marketers for using "a cheaper related species that is considered less desirable." Nature’s Way was exempted because it was able to verify and certify the purity of its supplement, based on DNA bar code testing.
“Organized crime is increasingly seeing food fraud as an attractive activity because the penalties are low,” Hanner observes. Yet when Guelph scientists started flagging widespread seafood fraud, “we were labeled food terrorists” intent on painting an overly bleak picture of the problem. But instead of relying on fraud prosecutions and shifting instead to authentication programs, “We’ll clean up the bad actors more quickly and efficiently,” he believes.
The embrace of DNA barcoding and other rapid-identification technologies may come sooner than most realize. Hanner foresees “citizen scientists” buying probes and getting results from a lab, then blowing the whistle on brand owners who inadvertently sell surimi labeled as cod.
“You’re going to get tried in the court of Facebook and Twitter if your product is exposed as fraudulent,” Hanner warns.