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Food Authenticity: Testing To Keep One Step Ahead

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Credit: © Agilent Technologies, Inc. 2021. Reproduced with permission, courtesy of Agilent Technologies, Inc.
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Scan the menu in a top-class restaurant and you may encounter premium ingredients that promise an exceptional dining experience: wild-caught halibut from Alaska. Saffron from Spain. Black Périgord truffle oil from France. Arabica coffee from Tanzania.  

But things aren't always as they appear. What do we really know about such products, other than what the labels would have us believe? Sometimes, surprisingly little – and that gap between perception and reality is estimated to cost the food industry $40 billion per year.1

Global chains, many links

Today’s global food supply chains are complex and dynamic
, with food and food ingredients from all over the world passing through many hands before finally reaching the consumer. The difficulty of policing these supply chains is compounded by sometimes inconsistent safety regulations, inspection and enforcement. Amid all this complexity, food fraud – defined as "any deliberate action of businesses or individuals to deceive others in regards to the integrity of food to gain undue advantage."2 – is on the rise.

Authenticity and fraud issues impact a huge array of food products; not just high-value or “premium” products, but also food staples like rice and milk that millions depend on daily. Specialty products designated as organic, halal, or kosher present their own unique authenticity challenges. And the consequences of uncertain food identity reach well beyond financial gain or loss; there are implicit safety and quality issues with potentially significant public health consequences. Additionally, questions surrounding the genuineness of food can erode consumer confidence and trust and cause irreparable harm to a company’s reputation and brand integrity.

High-profile examples, still fresh in the public's collective memory, include the adulteration of dairy products with melamine in China,3 which killed six infants and sickened hundreds of thousands more, and the peanut scandal in the United States, where a company knowingly sold salmonella-contaminated peanuts to food manufacturers, causing multiple deaths and severe illness in more than 700 people.4

Revealing the truth

The role of food authenticity testing is to reveal the truth about the food we consume, and to identify whether it has been unintentionally – or in the case of food fraud, purposefully – adulterated. The truth, once revealed, may be that something labeled as "X" isn't only "X" – adulterants, even potentially harmful ones, may be present. Or it may be that something labeled as "X" is actually "Y" – that is to say, something else entirely.

Food authenticity testing aims to prove and document that a food or food ingredient is what it is claimed to be, without adulteration by other substances. Such testing can help industry establish trusted supplier relationships, fortifying some of the weak links in global supply chains while providing economic stability and security to farmers, producers and distributors and ensuring customer confidence in their purchase.

Analytical testing plays a crucial role in this complex scenario – that of shifting the battle against food fraud from reacting to unwanted events toward early detection
and prevention, thereby giving the food industry more control over food safety and quality while also improving consumer confidence. Advances in analytical testing capabilities are significantly improving food authenticity testing, but there is still a long way to go before every kind of food fraud can be detected and/or prevented.

Analysis in action: The rice project

© Agilent Technologies, Inc. 2021. Reproduced with permission, courtesy of Agilent Technologies, Inc.

Fraud in the rice supply has been a known problem for years. Typically, low-quality rice is substituted for premium rice varieties such as basmati or jasmine, which are prized for their aroma and flavor. In 2017, however, news broke of a new kind of rice fraud; some Asian rice producers were accused of bringing old, moldy, low-quality rice out of storage, treating it with bleach (to restore the natural white color of rice grains), spraying it with fragrance that mimics premium rice and bagging it into premium branded bags. This adulterated rice was then sold into global markets, especially into Africa.5, 6 With more than 3.5 billion people – many
in low- and lower-middle-income countries – dependent on rice for as much as half of their daily calories, adulterated rice can have a huge human impact.

Working with Professor Chris Elliott from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University Belfast, a project was funded called, “Fingerprinting Rice: Implementing a System to Monitor and Manage Food Fraud”7. The overall aim of the project was to develop and demonstrate a two-tiered system of testing technologies that would provide a means for rapid screening of rice samples (tier 1) combined with a high-confidence confirmation (tier 2). 

This system, consisting of a screening method based on molecular spectroscopic techniques followed by confirmatory analysis, employing mass spectrometry (
MS) combinations of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). The results demonstrated the core value of such an approach, namely that the use of orthogonal detection modalities yields considerably more information than any single method and supports comprehensive fraud detection.

Consideration was also given to use-case practicalities: will the end-user benefit more from faster screening approaches, or does the use-case require high-confidence confirmatory analysis? Results from this project underscored the need to ensure that “fingerprinting” techniques employ models that have been built using authentic reference samples and adequate numbers of samples – typically at least hundreds – reflecting the diversity of the food product. For commodities like rice, consideration must be given not only to the variety of rice, but also to factors such as growing conditions, the number of harvests and seasonal fluctuations.

Pursuing speed and certainty

In addition to ongoing internal product development efforts aimed to provide customers with complete solutions for food authenticity testing, working with scientists and researchers all over the world helps to continuously improve existing food safety and quality testing products and workflows and to provide laboratories with “fit-for-purpose” solutions that meet the stated needs and requirements in different labs doing different kinds of testing.  

Analysts require a complete workflow solution, to make testing as rapid, cost-effective, efficient and accurate as possible. The development of high-confidence methods using both
targeted and non-targeted approaches is a primary focus. In a targeted approach, you know exactly what compounds you are looking for, and labs will typically use triple quadrupole MS connected to either GC or LC. Triple quadruple instruments are very fast and very sensitive, ideal for detecting known compounds present at even very low levels. But if the adulterants are new, or have not been previously identified, a non-targeted approach is required to have a chance of detecting them. Non-targeted methods, typically using quadrupole time-of-flight MS, create a fingerprint of authentic food incorporating multiple chemical features in the sample and use software to create models of authentic foods. Samples are then analyzed by comparing their profile to the authentic fingerprints. This makes it very difficult for fraudsters to falsify the tests since fingerprints consisting of multiple chemical signatures in an authentic food are looked at.   

Most countries address food fraud through specific food safety regulations. However, food fraud regulations can be challenging to navigate, because fraud impacts such a huge array of food and food ingredients with an equally large number of adulterants. Additionally, fraudsters are adept at switching things up to avoid detection. Several standards development organizations, including the
Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) International and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), are working to develop the first food authenticity standard test methods, but these methods are so far applicable to only a few commodities and/or adulterants. AOAC is working to develop both targeted and non-targeted profiling methods for milk, olive oil and honey.  

Food fraud and testing in the era of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about far-reaching changes in the food industry, many of which impact food authenticity and testing. Massive disruptions in global food supply chains resulted in genuine food insecurity around the world and created new food safety issues. At the same time, consumers’ buying behaviors have also shifted massively, with ecommerce growing 70%, more people cooking at home than ever before and a measurable shift toward comfort foods and more healthy and nutritious options.

The food industry has had to shift quickly to adapt to these changes; there is a much sharper focus on a “trust but verify” approach to establishing supply chain partners, as well as rapid movement toward the adoption of digital technologies such as Blockchain for tracking and tracing.

Toward a safer future

The mechanism by which our world feeds itself grows more complex every day. Sustainable sourcing is taking center stage, the development of plant-based foods is booming and consumers are increasingly seeking out foods that address specific wellness goals, for example, a healthy gut microbiome.

Each new development adds a new layer of complexity – and each new layer is an opportunity that fraudsters can exploit to their advantage. This constant evolution of the nature of food will continue to fuel rapid change in industry regulations and standards, in turn driving the need for technological and methodological innovation that can deliver the updated and improved testing methods we will need to meet any new challenge. 


1. PwC and SSAFE. Food fraud vulnerability assessment: Free online tool helps food companies fight fraud to protect consumers.
https://www.pwc.com/sg/en/industries/assets/food-fraud-vulnerability-assessment.pdf. Published 2015. Accessed August 17, 2021

2. Food fraud. Knowledge Centre for Food Fraud and Quality. European Commission.
https://knowledge4policy.ec.europa.eu/food-fraud-quality/topic/food-fraud_en. Accessed August 17, 2021

3. Sharma K, Paradakar, M. The Melamine Adulteration Scandal. Food Secur. 2010;2(1):97-107. doi: 10.1007/s12571-009-0048-5

Multistate outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium infections linked to peanut butter, 2008-2009 (FINAL UPDATE). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/2009/peanut-butter-2008-2009.html.  Published 2009. Accessed Aug 18, 2021

Fingerprinting rice: Fighting food fraud, saving lives. Directorate of Research Innovation and Consultancy, University of Cape Coast. https://dric.ucc.edu.gh/news/fingerprinting-rice-fighting-food-fraud-saving-lives Published Sept 10, 2019. Accessed Aug 18, 2021

6. Cleaning up the murky waters of rice fraud. Queens University Belfast.
https://www.qub.ac.uk/Research/GRI/TheInstituteforGlobalFoodSecurity/institute-for-global-security-news/Cleaningupthemurkywatersofricefraud.html. Published Mar 1, 2021. Accessed Aug 18, 2021

7. McGrath T, Shannon M, Chevallier O. Food fingerprinting: Using a two-tiered approach to monitor and mitigate food fraud in rice.
J AOAC Int. 2021 Mar 5;104(1):16-28. doi: 10.1093/jaoacint/qsaa109

Dr. Mary McBride is associate vice president of applied markets at Agilent Technologies. She leads a team focused to develop strategy for growth across the applied segment markets (food, environmental, energy and chemical, materials and forensics). In this role she also drives Agilent’s end market strategic plan of record (SPR) and translates market intelligence and market research into actionable insights, enabling informed business decisions and conveying a competitive advantage across Agilent chemical and life sciences markets. She and her team analyze market performance to support Agilent’s senior investor relations communications. Mary has many years of business and market development experience and deep technical expertise in biological-based testing and biotechnology development. She holds a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of California at Davis and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and holds 5 patents.