The purpose of authenticity testing is to assure the true state of food. According to the International Food Authenticity Assurance Organisation (FAAO), “food authenticity is the process of irrefutably proving that a food or food ingredient is in its original, genuine, verifiable and intended form as declared and represented”. Authenticity testing is utilised to prove the content of food products are authentic and the way they are presented is correct and accurate.
Although authenticity testing is not a new concept, it has received considerable attention in recent years due to increasing numbers of food fraud incidents reported worldwide. The number of reports made to the UK National Food Crime Unit has increased from 796 cases in 2015 to 1193 in 2019, with 364 notices in the first three months of 2019.
Food fraud covers intentional alterations made to the content of food products for economic gain, also known as Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA). EMA not only undermines food authenticity, but the presence of toxic or undeclared adulterants (substances) may put consumer’s health at risk. In 2008 an incident in China, for example, led to 6 confirmed death cases and had a severe impact on over 50,000 infants, when melamine was deliberately added to milk to increase the perceived protein level.
Economically Motivated Adulteration is a form of non-compliance with food laws, and regulatory authorities are constantly looking for ways to help the food industry prevent and remove the impact on the food supply chain and safeguard public health.
Food fraud compliance and safety assessment
The safety compliance of food products is covered under the European Commission General Food Law. Article 14 (1) of Regulation (EC) 178/2002 clearly states “food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe”. The enforcement of food and feed regulations, including authenticity, is covered under Regulation (EC) 882/2004. The official controls for food and feed legislation are laid down under Regulation (EU) 2017/625. Food safety controls and food standard controls are mandatory to protect consumers from two main types of risks. The food safety risks cover microbiological, chemical, physical, radiological or allergen contaminations and standard risks, including misleading labels.
The Global Standards for Food Safety Version 8, published by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), was revised in 2018 to include key changes to safety control requirements. The requirement for producing ‘authentic’ products is now added to the BRC standards, to reflect the need for food fraud prevention to become part of supplier’s documented policies. It also adds the requirement for an up to date vulnerability assessment plan, and assurance testing for raw materials that are known to be at risk of substitution or adulteration.
Multiple compliance requirements are in effect in the U.S., including the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Certification, Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA), Food Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), Codex Alimentarius (CODEX), International Standard Organisation (ISO) and others. Since the first of January 2018, the GFSI compliance requires a Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment and Food Fraud Preventative Strategy for all types of food frauds and for all products.
The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) published a guidance document, which provides operators with a step by step procedure for vulnerability assessment and evaluating risks in the food supply chain. The outcomes of these assessments are used to develop a control plan to mitigate risks.
An illustration of the USP Guidance Framework for Food Fraud Mitigation planning and control.
Development of standard methods
Multiple food fraud initiatives and programmes have been funded across the globe to define quality principles, develop analytical methods and set standards for food authenticity testing.
The Food Authenticity and Fraud programme (FAF), launched by the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists International (AOAC), aims to identify and develop standard reference methods, for both targeted and non-targeted approaches, for quality control and compliance of food materials. Several research institutions and networks across the EU are collaborating to define terminologies related to food authenticity, in order to harmonise the use of methodologies and approaches to authenticity testing, including the IFAAO and Codex Alimentarius.
The UK Food Authenticity Programme, led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), develops 'fit for purpose' methods for official control laboratories involved in food authenticity testing. The Authenticity Methods Working Group report, in response to Elliott Review on ‘integrity and assurance of food supply networks’- recommendation, sets out the UK’s national framework for food authenticity testing. The report also provides guidance for sampling, and analysis requirements for all laboratories of food authenticity testing.
Food authenticity testing approaches
There are two different approaches to food authenticity testing, depending on the type of fraud and level of vulnerability: targeted and non-targeted analysis. Targeted analysis is used when the adulterants are known, or the food in question has naturally built in markers, either physical, biological or chemical, that can reveal its identity or purity. If the adulterating materials are new, or have not been identified previously, a targeted approach will not be able to trace them using routine analytical tests and, therefore, a not-targeted approach is considered.
The GFSI defines seven distinct types of food fraud as the following:
Substitution is the process of replacing a food, partly or totally, with a cheaper substance; for instance, mixing extra virgin olive oil with low grade oil.
Unapproved enhancement is adding undeclared or unknown materials to enhance their quality attributes and evade analytical tests, e.g. adding colouring or flavouring dyes to spices or adding melamine to increase protein content in milk.
Concealment is the process of adding materials to food to mask defects or deterioration; for example, hormone injections to conceal poultry disease.
Dilution means any addition of cheaper materials to premium or expensive food, diluting liquids with water or the dilution of honey with sugar syrup.
Mislabelling is when food product attributes do not match with the product’s label; for instance, labelling non-organic food as organic.
Counterfeiting refers to food or food ingredients being totally replaced with a similar looking product; for example, selling an entirely made up formulation as pure juice.
Grey Market Production/theft/diversion covers the production or sale of food products through unregulated channels, e.g. the sale of excess or unreported food products.
Among these, counterfeiting and grey market production/theft/diversion are out of regulatory compliance control and related to infringement of intellectual property rights, whereas EMAs are non-compliance with food laws and subject to safety assessment and official controls.
Applications of targeted and non-targeted approach
Targeted approaches can be used to reveal substitution, dilution, concealment and mislabelling. A broad range of technologies are available, depending on the food and the characteristics in question. Chemical methods analytically target and identify a compound, or measure its level in food substances, that are at risk of substitution. For example, the fatty acid profile of olive oil is measured using Mass Spectrometry, coupled with Gas Chromatography, to check the number and level of fatty acid content in extra virgin olive oil samples. Various analytical methods are used for detecting food contaminants, such as illegal dyes, including high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and thin layer chromatography (TLC). DNA-based methods, including PCR and DNA sequencing, are used to test if food is partly or totally replaced, for instance, the use of DNA barcoding for species identification in fish, meat and seafood products.
Use of non-targeted approaches is becoming increasingly important, because there is always a risk of new adulterating materials that cannot be tracked using a targeted approach. Non-targeted analytical methods are developed to create a fingerprint of authentic food as a reference standard. Liquid Chromatography-High Resolution Spectrometry has been used to create a fingerprint of authentic cheese and assess authenticity. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is used for molecular profiling of sugar, alcohol and fats. DNA fingerprinting techniques are used as molecular tools for authentication of mixed spices or herbs. Isotopic analyses and fingerprinting can be used for verification of organically grown food and geographical origin of various food products.
Future of authenticity testing
The concept of using authenticity testing to identify EMAs is shifting the fight against food fraud from reaction after they happen, to early detection and prevention, thus allowing the food industry to have control over the issue of food safety. Research and technological advances are revolutionising the process of food authenticity testing, although they cannot be used to identify all types of food fraud. With the complexity of the global market and the addition of e-commerce, the safety risks of food fraud are likely to increase. Therefore, there is always a need for sensitive and accurate authenticity methods to prevent food fraud from happening and help the industry to keep pace with new fraud tricks that may threaten the safety of the food supply chain.
Read more on the topic of food fraud:
Food Fraud Costs the Global Food Industry $10-15 Billion Annually
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