Avoiding Food Crime in the Supply Chain

Dreamstime xl 22879958 smallWhile Quality Assurance and Quality Control are vital parts of the work laboratories carry out in the food and drink sector, their role in avoiding and preventing food crime should not be overlooked and neither should the role of the Laboratory Information Management System in this vital area.

A recent report on Food Crime by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) [1] assessed the current threats to food throughout the food chain. The FSA is the independent government department responsible for public health and consumer interests in relation to food for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, the nature of the food supply chain that links suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers, means that preventing criminal practices in food supply is a global issue.

Threats in the Food Chain

Several key threats affecting business and consumers are highlighted in the report. These include:

Commodity / theme Assessment summary
Red meat Illegal insertion of stolen and slaughtered livestock into the food chain.
Adulteration of meat (for example beef not pork).
Animal identification issues (for example re-tagging)
Dangerous non-foods Selling unapproved diet pills such as the sale of the industrial chemical DNP (2,4-Dinitrophenol) in the food chain, leading to fatalities.
Unauthorized use of CBD (especially with traces of THC) in novel foods.
Shellfish Illegal harvesting of shellfish and misrepresentation of product provenance to secure entry into the food chain.
Alcohol High spirit drinks adulterated with industrial alcohols.
Counterfeit and substandard wines.
Higher-risk products Adulterated olive oil, with other oils added.
Adulterated saffron, with other plant material added.
Fish White fish being sold as a different species.
Adulterated tuna being sold as fresh rather than for canning.
Eggs Misrepresentation of date, quality, and provenance.

Detecting adulterated food and criminal activity in the Food & Beverage industry

Without sophisticated laboratory techniques it can be extremely difficult to identify adulterated raw materials and products. However, analytical techniques exist that can help. Rapid PCR testing can quickly identify possible adulteration of one product with another. For example, in the meat industry; a problem that came to prominence following the 2013 EU horse meat scandal in which undeclared horse meat found its way into burgers and ready meals. Other analytical tests such as Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry can help identify adulteration of high value products such as saffron and olive oil.

An aspect of this testing that needs careful consideration, however, is managing the data generated and making that data available to whoever needs it. Reputable growers, manufacturers and wholesalers carry out regular adulteration quality checks that may lead to the withdrawal of products from the shelves. For example, a major UK supermarket pulled its own brand honey from shelves as a precautionary measure in November 2019 after independent tests indicated it contained syrups made from sugar. The key to making this work is a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) that not only manages the samples submitted for testing and the testing data, but which is also able to alert analysts when a problem is detected and to notify interested parties. This allows remedial or corrective action to be taken and prevents potentially contaminated products being released to market. Problems with adulterated food should be the exception however, not the rule. Therefore, it is also important that interested parties receive notification as soon as possible when materials under test are shown to be acceptable. Failure to release this data in a timely way can lead to unnecessary delays in the production process or product release.

LIMS, a business-critical system in the food and beverage industry

As indicated above a LIMS such as Matrix Gemini helps organizations control potential food crime and adulteration by not only managing the required testing data, but by also managing the way information is made available. LIMS are sophisticated, business critical systems with comprehensive feature sets that meet the needs of the laboratory and business. Flexible LIMS such as Matrix Gemini ensure the exact needs of different labs within the food safety sector can be met. They support the detection of food fraud and adulteration as well as standard Quality Assurance and Quality Control processes. They help ensure the safety and quality of products and protect brand reputation.

The recent UK Food Crime strategic assessment highlighted that continued vigilance is needed throughout the supply chain to protect the interests of the industry and consumer. The current Covid-19 pandemic has led to greater food insecurity, with an increased demand for food banks and cheaper food products as disposable income is reduced for many. Now more than ever we need to be vigilant about the quality of the ingredients and final products in the food and beverage industry to ensure consumer safety. The laboratory and the LIMS they use play a key part in this.