New Techniques for Tracing Ingredients

Jan. 31, 2006
It’s like CSI: New scientific techniques can uncover the source of pathogens, contamination, even genetic modification … in foods and their ingredients.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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.

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.

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.

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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