Outwitting food fraudsters with next-gen tech

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Spices and herbs are at the forefront of global food adulteration and security concerns. With a rapidly growing population and number of food firms, adulteration continues to be a serious challenge. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted global supply chains and forced producers to work with new, unproven suppliers, escalating concerns related to food fraud.

India is the largest spice manufacturer and caters to 48 per cent of the global demand. These herbs and spices are often cultivated by small farmers and villages, thereby increasing the associated risks of adulteration and sharing the burden of combating food tampering.

According to the 2018-19 annual report of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), nearly 28 per cent of the food samples tested for quality, including spices, were adulterated.

Ground spices and herbs could be adulterated with artificial colours, starch, chalk powder, etc. to increase their weight and enhance appearance for economic gains. Moreover, spices and herbs can often be a major source of adulteration and microbial contamination, with potentially harmful microbes, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Yersinia intermedia, Shigella spp., Enterobacter spp., Acinetobacter calcoaceticus and Hafnia alvei. In some cases, Salmonella concentrations have also been reported in spices. Aflatoxin produced by the fungi Aspergillus is the most common mycotoxin in spices.

“Even though most of the spices have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, they are sometimes affected with microorganisms, which may be harmful to human health after consumption. Consumption of adulterated spices for prolonged periods may result in stomach disorders, cancer, vomiting, diarrhoea, ulcers, liver disorders, skin disorders, neurotoxicity, etc. Thus, there is a need for better control in all aspects of the production, processing and usage of food products to prevent potential food spoilage and food-borne illnesses due to contaminated spices and herbs”, says Dr Amit Krishan De, Former Executive Secretary, Indian Science Congress Association, Kolkata.


Corrective measures

To address the growing concerns, scientists at the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR), Kozhikode, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), have been detecting adulteration in spices available in the domestic market using DNA barcoding. After a series of studies, since 2010 IISR scientists found that black pepper, chilli powder, turmeric powder, cinnamon bark and mace have been adulterated using plant-based adulterants. The institute has recently opened two new facilities – Spice Processing Facility and Pesticide Residue Analytical Laboratory, intended to play a vital role in the efforts for enhancing food safety across agricultural products.

Simultaneously, the FSSAI has recently revised the manual of ‘Methods of Analysis of Foods’, focusing on checking adulteration in spices, herbs and condiments. The manual highlights numerous methods and techniques to detect moisture content, total ash, calcium oxide, crude fibre and extraneous matters in different spices. For instance, it is possible to detect oil-soluble dyes in capsicum, turmeric and their products using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).

“The manual is principally intended to provide unified, up-to-date testing methods for regulatory compliance. It brings together testing methodologies approved by the FSSAI for use in surveillance and implementing regulatory programmes. The objective is to adopt the ‘One Parameter, One Method’ approach. These methods will be constantly updated with the latest technological advancements in food analysis”, reveals Arun Singhal, Chief Executive Officer, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), New Delhi.

So, it is important for suppliers to protect against these risks by asking the right questions and having the right answers. Having adequate information through descriptions of the product, including species, kinds of processing used, and content of active chemicals, helps prevent adulteration and fraud. Knowing where norms or enforcement in a supply chain might otherwise be lacking provides improved understanding to strengthen the scrutiny. Further assessing one’s market well enough to know the unusual time or low prices of the product can help authorities detect frauds before they spread.


Next-gen tech to the rescue

Incorrect information on food is a widespread problem, particularly in products with high economic value. Complex supply chains and market pressures can leave food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers vulnerable to food fraud and mislabeling. Though protective measures can keep fraudulent goods out of the supply chain, they cannot provide the same level of assurance as laboratory-based testing. Traditional methods, however, have an inherent weakness – they are designed to detect and quantify a known substance, meaning laboratories will only find adulteration if it is in the form they are looking for.

In addition, when the samples are sent to the laboratories for testing, it entails a minimum turnaround time of 24-48 hours on account of detailed operative procedures as specified by the regulators which all labs have to adhere to as a part of the performance analysis. Apart from being a highly skilled job mandating highly qualified professionals to undertake this study, the conventional equipment used is quite costly.

This provides an opportunity to go in for onsite rapid testing solutions for the spice industry and one such next-gen solution is being offered in the form of Qualix, by Mohali-based startup AgNext. Qualix has the potential for testing proximate and attribute testing parameters in chilli, turmeric, pepper, ginger, etc. The runtime per sample for this device is 30 seconds with a system built accuracy of 95 per cent. 

Sharing more information about this technology, Taranjeet Singh Bhamra, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, AgNext, Mohali says, “Being able to provide results within 30 seconds, Qualix has created a new paradigm of the ‘Test and Buy’ model in the value chain and has the potential to enhance the confidence of the buyer to buy a product after witnessing the tests performed. The USP of the device lies in the fact that it does away with the requirement of skilled personnel to perform the job, and testing can be done by any unskilled person as well.”

Further, DNA-based approaches for food testing have significantly improved with the recent application of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) techniques. This technique is recognised as one of the most reliable methods for species detection and identification. NGS allows untargeted detection of thousands of organisms without requiring previous knowledge of the supply chain, or about the species to search for. As a result, NGS is becoming an increasingly useful and powerful way to check the robustness of controls for a large number of steps in a process or to reduce the risk of undiscovered fraud when the number and variability of suppliers impact the supply chain.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s NGS has, recently, come around as one of the leading testing methods that ensure correct identification of species in complex foods including herbs and spices. Therefore, the use of this method is increasing, and it is routinely being applied in food authenticity analysis.

“With complexities involved in the food supply chain, growing demand for spices and herbs for exports, along with the rising need for healthier and safer products, concerns related to food fraud and authenticity have escalated. Thermo Fisher Scientific brings together a unique offering of products and expertise to deliver simpler, faster, and advanced food-testing workflow solutions from sample to result to knowledge. One advancement is the application of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). The Thermo Scientific NGS Food Authenticity Workflow utilises the Ion Torrent Next Generation Sequencing technology to enable an untargeted screening approach making it possible to identify the species contained in food samples in comparison with a DNA database of more than 5000 plant species, including spices and herbs. This promising technology will continue to play a vital role in supporting regulatory authorities to enable proper authentication and speedy trials, and control adulteration as soon as possible”, explains Amit Chopra, Managing Director, India and South Asia, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Mumbai.

Having confidence in the authenticity of the food ingredients is essential to protect the brand against food fraud. Conducting and maintaining strict market surveillance is an essential tool for tackling food fraud and ensures consumers’ protection. So, it is relevant to bring new technologies into routine use to ensure consumer confidence and safety, and of course fair trade.

The new technologies represent a step-change in food authenticity testing. This new way of testing can provide the authenticity needed for raw materials to guarantee a high-quality finished product. Furthermore, the use of technology will continue to play a vital role in supporting regulatory authorities to enable proper authentication and speedy trials, and control adulteration in the shortest time frame.

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