Consumers want to know they are getting the quality product that is promised to them when they are picking an item off a shelf.
This year alone more than 50 food and beverage products have been recalled in Australia, putting the country on track to for its worst year since 2003, where 70 recalls were issued.
Currently, 58 per cent of all food product recalls are due to labelling violations, with no improvement year to year, while there has been an improvement in recalls due to microbial contamination over the same period.
Labelling is essential in consumer confidence, with food allergy estimated to affect 1-2 per cent of adults and 4-8 per cent of children under five years old in Australia, according to a SA Department of Health and Food report from 2010.
Twenty-three people died from food allergies between 1997 and 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with seafood being the leading cause.
This is despite Australia having some of the strictest laws in regards to integrity and labelling of food. Historically, these laws were focused almost entirely on consumer safety. In 2018, advancing technologies are allowing regulators to monitor all aspects more closely.
Companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific are able to offer end-to-end solutions that provide coverage across all aspects of composition, safety and authenticity of foods.
Food labelling isn’t a new trend, it is a long-established legal requirement within Australia and particularly for food exports.
So what notable changes have occurred in this consumer driven marketplace? Medical consequence, public awareness, new technologies, legal requirements, ethical sentiments, religious beliefs, significance for consumers and much more.
Now more than ever, not understanding or misrepresenting a product can have legal and economic impacts. Recurring food contamination scandals show there is always room for error, and there is limited differentiation between accidental and intentional adulteration and mislabelling.
Giving consumers the right information
It is important manufacturers, can provide information to allow consumers to make an informed choice while providing reassurance of accuracy.
For example, when a company makes a product using olive oil, it should be able to prove the oil is in fact made from 100 per cent olive oil and not blended with cheaper substitutes.
Addition, depletion, substitution, reformulation and changes in processing of food that affects the products composition, nutrition or visual representation requires clear labelling, otherwise it may be deemed an illegal adulteration, whether deliberate or intentional.
Adulteration could include adding dyes to spices to enhance the colour, or blending a premium product, such as virgin olive oil, with a low-value vegetable oil at levels that consumers don’t detect.
Adulteration and mislabelling is not limited to food with beverage equally under the microscope, with reports of tea containing dried beech leaves and coffee being bulked up with maize and other cereal grains.
Thermo Fisher Scientific highlights that milk is one of the most common targets for adulteration with additions including water, whey, sodium hydroxide, urea or melamine.
The products are skewed to increase volume, mask inferior quality, and replace the authentic substances.
Getting the real deal
Food labelling and authenticity testing can range from basic dipstick analysis for presence and absence of antibiotic residues, through to advance molecular techniques performed at certified laboratories to trace the origin of raw materials.
Thermo Fisher Scientific offers a range of videos and tutorials to educate food processors, packers and manufacturers about how they can protect their consumers and brands.
Understanding the right tools for the job
To enforce regulations, there are targeted and untargeted methods of analysis. Targeted methods are used to detect and quantify a known substance used for adulteration.
Untargeted methods can be used initially to screen for possible adulteration, leading to identification of the substance responsible and then subsequent target analysis.
For authenticity, untargeted methods are primarily used to fingerprint foods, by measuring a number of different variables and looking for characteristic patterns.
For target analysis, the approach is the same as that used for the analysis of residues or contaminants in foods.
However, often what starts out as target analysis for a single chemical, progressively expands to cover a wider range of possible adulterants, as it becomes evident that other substances might be implicated.
In some cases it may be that the adulterant itself cannot be readily detected, but the adulterant may contain marker compounds not found naturally in the commodity being adulterated, and these marker compounds can be targeted.
Once there is a known adulteration problem, target analysis using molecular spectroscopy can be developed with a view to rapid screening.
By its very nature, adulteration is inevitably difficult to detect, so increasingly profiling or fingerprinting of foods is being used as a means of highlighting any unusual features. Once the unusual peak has been pin-pointed, it then requires classical identification techniques to be applied to identify and establish whether adulteration has occurred.
Thermo Fisher Scientific knows this is a challenging approach, as it relies on establishing a normal profile for a foodstuff in the form of a database and getting a good understanding of the natural variations that can occur.
The drawback of this approach is that analytical techniques inevitably are selective as the whole food cannot be analysed directly.