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How Mars is Taking on Food Integrity, Food Fraud and Adulteration

June 24, 2022
Dr. Susan Blount, Vice President of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs for Mars Incorporated recently sat down with us to talk about what the company is doing to tackle these major food safety issues.

With us on the podcast is Dr. Susan Blount, Vice President of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs for Mars Incorporated. Today we’re talking about food integrity, food fraud and adulteration and what Dr. Blount and her team are doing to ensure consumers throughout the world have safer foods.

We kick things off talking about what food integrity is – and isn’t and what companies like Mars are doing to ensure a safe food system. We take a deeper dive into regulations across the world when it comes to the misrepresentation of food and how that plays into the global supply chain. We also address issues pertaining to consumer trust and how Mars is working with its partners for more consistent harmonization as well as the technologies that are available to detect fraudulent foods. We cap things off talking about the Mars Global Food Safety Center and as well as whether better detection methods or more regulations are more important when it comes to food fraud.

Transcript

Erin: Welcome to the Food For Thought podcast. Let's open up the conversation by first talking about food integrity. Can you explain what food integrity is and perhaps what it isn't?

Dr. Susan Blount: Yes. Thank you for having me, and to be able to talk about a topic that's important to us as food manufacturers.

Perhaps I can start with a bit of an anecdote. The Food Standards Agency in the UK did some analysis sometime ago now, but they looked at Basmati rice—a premium product sold in the UK—for whether it was Basmati rice or not. And what they found was over half of the product being sold had been contaminated or diluted with inferior long-grain rice. That's just one data point, but again, quite a scary one.

When we think about what food integrity is and isn't, it’s about making food and being aware of the importance that the food is safe and that it's authentic. It also needs to respect the environment and be sustainable.

Food integrity is also really the basis of our relationship with the people who buy our products. They probably don't tend to think about food integrity—it's not something we want them to worry about. When it goes wrong, we start to see food that might be economically motivated adulterated.

For instance, at one level there’s diluting a premium product with a cheaper one—we see that a lot also in spices. Another example would be claiming something is a halal product when it isn’t all halal ingredients. The highest level would be a situation where you might end up with food that isn't safe because of any adulterations that have taken place. An example of this would be undeclared allergens.

They're all important in terms of food integrity, but obviously there are layers of consequence for the consumer. And all of this costs the food industry about 30 billion euros a year. This is a huge issue for us to tackle.

Erin: How can a company like Mars, and perhaps the industry, ensure food integrity?

Dr. Blount: That's a great question. Mars has a big global footprint of raw materials. We buy over 8 million tons of raw materials from many geographies to go into our vast product range. We have an opportunity as a company, and also with our peer companies, and as a whole industry to help shape both the regulatory environment in which we operate, but to have the lens of what's going on in the food industry and we’re seeing in terms of our specifications, our supplier quality assurance programs that we have in place to make sure that our suppliers are giving us what we are asking for the country in which we're making product. We’re really sort of working together in this sort of food safety space, which we consider pre-competitive, to share knowledge and work together, both to sort of identify the risks that we see, and also the solutions that we're all working on to raise the bar for everybody.

And it's really important to do that because we now live in a world with very complicated global supply chains. We are moving lots of raw materials and products. So there are many geographies and jurisdictions, which gives consumers great choice. But we want to keep advancing the sort of supply chain integrity, so that we really can continue to invest for a better world for everyone tomorrow.

Erin: Let's talk a little bit about food fraud and adulteration. The regulations vary across the world regarding misrepresentation of food, you brought one up a little earlier. It seems like that might have an impact on the global supply chain. Are you seeing that right now at Mars?

And then a really quick follow up to that question, are there ways we can ensure or work toward guaranteeing more consistency when it comes to regulating how food is represented or, I guess, misrepresented?

Dr. Blount: Yes. When it comes to different regulations in different geographies, absolutely, it impacts the supply chain. And it's important that as food manufacturers, we understand the different regulations and the different environments and what that actually means for those countries.

Food integrity isn't regulated per se, but what we see is some regulators setting criteria for authenticity of their products; in other words what is and isn't allowed in a raw material in terms of preservation and farming techniques. There are regulations and regulatory controls in place. And one of the tools that we have is to try and drive harmonization of those regulations. If we can remove some of the differences in regulated controls, then it enables a more of a level playing field and a safe supply chain for everybody.

Testing methodologies are one of the other tools that we have to tackle food fraud. There is testing we can do to see whether products are authentic, which allows us to move products safely around the world. Regulation on its own can't do the job. But it is important because every time we have an issue, we erode trust with our consumers and we erode trust in food. It’s really the power of working together to drive those tools. When we talk about moving to a more sort of consistent harmonization, there are a number of external partners that we as Mars and many other partners work with.

There is Codex, who works to drive safe regulations globally. Then the AOAC has a part to play. They look after global methodology, and they establish standards for food safety and the methods by which we can demonstrate and all use them. If we can get globally recognized best practices on how we sample, how we analyze products and the reference databases we use, that really starts to unlock the war on people who commit fraud and help us maintain standards of identity. It's not without challenge because there are incidents where we start to collect data and put it into databases, it is important that we understand what we're collecting.

There was an example where Tesco was required to withdraw what was perceived as some fraudulent honey because it didn't match the reference sample in the database. What actually what transpired was it didn't match that particular sample in the database. It wasn't a fraudulent sample. And actually, the database comparison just wasn't sufficiently extensive.

It's a learning process; it's an iterative process. The more we can work together to elevate that sort of integrity in the data, it becomes more powerful than any one actor working by themselves.

Erin: Can you tell me more about how food fraud is detected? What kind of technology exists to detect this sort of thing?

Dr. Blount: When it comes to trying to detect food fraud, it's really making sure we have the right techniques for the right occasion.

At the farm level, you can use spectroscopy. Which basically means taking an analysis of your sample and seeing if it matches what you expect to see. That is a relatively cheap analytical method. It can be applied to handheld devices now, so that people in the field can do those tests on the ground. And that gives you a blunt instrument really. It sort of tells you that you may have a problem, you may have something that's different. It doesn't really tell you any more than that, but it gives you that weak signal. And then what you then can do is actually go to more advanced analytical techniques.

At the Mars Global Food Safety Center, which we invested in about nearly decade ago to conduct research into food safety, one of the priority research areas we have there, is food fraud. We are working with more sophisticated spectrometry fingerprinting techniques; it’s similar to how we have fingerprints that are unique to us.

If we think about rice—as such an important commodity—there are fingerprinting techniques that we've developed in conjunction with Agilent Technologies and Queen's University Belfast, to look at fingerprinting techniques for rice. It can get down to a level that can tell you if you are claiming your rice is from the Guangzhou region, it can tell you whether it is, or actually whether it came from another region, such as Chengdu. That technique can get much more sophisticated and give you a lot of trust in whether you've got the rice that you think you've got. Which, in turn, means you can sell that to the consumer and have a really good relationship because you have absolute trust that what you say your product is, it actually is what it is.

Erin: When it comes to detecting food fraud, which do you feel is more important? Developing better detection methods, or developing more regulations? And can you speak to the pros and cons of each?

Dr. Blount: I think that's a great question and it's a big challenge. As I said, I work in regulatory affairs, so for me having regulation is really important. Because the regulation sets the tone and it sets a culture by which everything else is built on. It sets that framework that really sets you up for success.

It's really important that we have a very robust regulatory framework with which to manage the vast challenges we have within our supply chain. But on its own, it can't do everything. It can be very challenging for regulators to keep up with the sheer number of products that are moving around the world in real time. And we also need to continue to provide regulators with evidence to be able to conduct their enforcement and to give them the tools to be able to potentially drive to prosecution.

What's also important is that we have the analysis that goes with that. So I think the better the methods we have, the quicker we can get that initial weak signal and the more advanced we can get in terms of being able to detect what's going on. They're both really important. And one without the other doesn't really work.

Mars is exploring ways of new authentication protocols. We are looking at new tools like artificial intelligence to help us identify trends and weak signals. And then, as I said before, working in partnership with NGOs and academics to share that information. They're both really important and they both do an important job.

Erin: Are you able to speak on any new initiatives Mars is working on as it relates to food integrity, food fraud and adulteration?

Dr. Blount: Yes. Let me give you a little bit of a perspective of what we are doing. And this is really what gets me out of bed in the morning; this is why I do my job and why I love working with people at the Global Food Safety Center and working with collaborators. Because I think we have an opportunity together to really drive this forward.

We have a couple of things that we are really focusing on. One is the future of digital. So how do we take data, and digital solutions and really unlock some of the challenges that we have in remote parts of the world. Data is our friend if we use it wisely. We’re starting to look at how to share information, how to build robust databases so that we can all benefit from the huge amounts of data that everybody is collecting.

I think the other thing that's really important is horizon scanning or the ability to look beyond today. We talked about the importance of regulation and we have enforcement in the moment, but we need to start to anticipate what's coming. We are also very invested in technology to look at how we scan the horizon for both the science and the regulation, and increasingly, the consumer perception of science, so that we can start to think about what are the things that are coming on the horizon that will be relevant to us and the products we make.

And of course, the challenges of climate change are really putting stresses and strains on the global supply chain and the raw materials. As we see fluctuations in supply and price, being able to monitor the impact of what might happen and what that might drive is really important.

Those are a couple of things that we are working on and sharing with others. We’re really trying to proactively anticipate what some of the things that may be coming are that will also affect us so we can get ahead of that curve. This really is a big industry in terms of fraud. And if we can tackle it more proactively, we can really start to move the needle and make some big successes. Which means that we can then really shore up the trust that our consumers have in the food industry and the products we know and love, and we love to make for all our consumers.

Erin: Well Susan, you've provided so much information. I wanna thank you, this was an absolutely fantastic and informative episode and so excited to have had you on today. And I just wanna say thank you for joining me today on the "Food For Thought" podcast.

Dr. Blount: It was my pleasure.

Consumer demand for plant-based proteins continues to grow. This webinar from Donaldson examines the category and covers the proper filtration techniques for liquid, air and gas used in the fermentation and production of plant-based food products.

About the Author

Erin A. Hallstrom

Erin Hallstrom oversaw our digital content strategy for the Food Processing brand from 2008-2023. She is now the Associate Director of SEO Strategy for Endeavor Business Media, where she holds technical certifications in both website analytics and search engine optimization. Most recently, she was named the 2022 Marianne Dekker Mattera Award Winner

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