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Tracking Down the Food Fraudsters

47/2016, 17.11.2016

BfR involved in a new research project on the further development of methods for verifying the authenticity of foods and products

Due to the increasingly more globalised supply chains for feeds and foods, it is now necessary for authorities and businesses to develop new, valid solution approaches which can guarantee the authenticity of processed foods. The food and feed crises of recent years, such as the melamine crisis with baby food and the horse meat scandal with ready-to-eat lasagne, provide impressive proof of the necessity of this. "What we need here are modern, universally applicable strategies which allow not only the quick detection of known, typical food adulterations but also methods to uncover manipulations that have not been known up to now, " said Professor Dr. Reiner Wittkowski, Vice-president of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on the occasion of the kick-off event for another research project for the further development of the authenticity verification of foods on 16 November 2016 in Cologne. The "FoodAuthent" project (development of a system for the collection, analysis and utilisation of product authenticity data) will in particular further develop the outline conditions for the routine use of chemical-analytical fingerprinting methods. "FoodAuthent" is part of the research programme "Proof of Origin of Foods" conducted by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) which is being promoted by the BMEL on the basis of a resolution of the German Bundestag. The BfR plays a decisive role in this project.

One of the difficulties in detecting food fraud is the fact that in most cases, only the substance that is being looked for can be found. A food is therefore tested for various falsifications that are already known, but unknown additives and adulterations can be overlooked using this approach. The goal of more recent research work is therefore the development of so-called non-targeted analytical methods which also make it principally possible to identify unknown adulteration, especially unexpected additives.

In a non-targeted analysis, the spectroscopic characteristics of the ingredients of a food sample, i.e. its "chemical fingerprint", are described through the combination of spectroscopy and multivariate data analysis. By establishing the natural variation through the examination of unadulterated, authentic samples of a specified food, a reference database with chemical fingerprints is built up against which a new sample is tested. Through comparison with the authentic spectrum of each anticipated product, the identification of many different deviations is possible, e. g. the identification of products which were accidentally or intentionally adulterated.

In addition to the analytical prerequisites, which include above all the adequate comparability of the results of measurements in different laboratories, the joint utilisation of the data and databases of public and private sector surveillance and test institutions also poses a great challenge when establishing these approaches in routine analysis.

For the first time, the integration of accessible fingerprinting databases which will be realised in the project, with standardised protocols for sample testing, validated statistical data analysis methods, uniform data exchange formats and a connection to product databases operated by the private sector, provides the opportunity of making effective use of the potential concealed in fingerprinting analysis. Jointly used, cloud-based food fingerprinting databases are being created and open, reproducible pattern recognition and data analysis methods developed. This also includes link-ups to IT systems containing batch-specific product information.

Through the interdisciplinary cooperation of experts from the fields of food analysis, food trading, software development, data mining and standardisation, the prerequisites are also being created for ensuring that analytical fingerprinting methods will be able to make a significant contribution towards the safety and transparency of the flows of food products all the way through to the consumer in future.

Within the consortium, GS1 Germany GmbH will coordinate the three-year research project with five partners. In addition to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the University of Konstanz, department of Computer and Information Science, Konstanz; Lablicate GmbH, Hamburg; Eurofins Analytik GmbH, Hamburg and die benelog GmbH & Co. KG, Kerpen are also involved.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.