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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Measurements & testing projects > Food Fraud: detecting food law cheats
Graphic element Food Fraud: detecting food law cheats
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Under current EU research projects, dozens of public research institutes, universities and private companies are collaborating to develop new methods of identifying evidence of food adulteration. In many cases a combination of methods is needed to prove with legal certainty that EU law providing for food safety or quality has been breached. New methods being developed include DNA sequencing and stable isotope analysis, to identify contaminants or their exact origin. The examples of current research projects outlined here provide for setting up validated databases with reference samples and disseminating these techniques to food standards enforcement authorities.

A series of food safety scares in recent years has heightened consumer awareness of the need for effective monitoring and enforcement of the existing raft of EU legislation. While extensive legislative measures regulate the safety and quality of food, evidence of deliberate avoidance of regulations is growing. New analytical tools are needed to improve the effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement. However the infrastructure is already in place.

Europe's food safety infrastructure

A major tool in this initiative is the new European Food Safety Agency (EFA) to support the principles of food law covering the whole food chain, including the safety of feedingstuffs for food-producing animals. The EFA was proposed in January 2000 as part of the European Commission's white paper on food safety from farm to fork (COM(1999)719 of 12 January 2000). It will provide a focal point for the future, by providing for scientific assessment of any issue bearing on the safety of the food supply, informing the public about food risks, maintaining the rapid alert system for food safety risks and cooperating with the national food safety agencies. The regulation setting up the EFA is expected to be adopted by the end of 2001.

Research into methods of determining food fraud is supported within the Fifth Framework Programme for R&TD (FP5) by the 'Measurements and testing' generic activity of the Competitive and Sustainable Growth Programme . Projects have to be able to develop analytical methods that can stand up in court. They must be clearly reliable, quantitatively defined, and certain of comparability between laboratories. The research projects on this page are examples of the measurements and testing initiatives aimed at improving the detection of food fraud. More fundamental research on nutrition and health comes under the parallel FP5 thematic programme Quality of life . Food safety is within the scope of the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO ).

What's in your wine glass?

As the EU accounts for 60% of the world's production and 70% of exports, wine is vital to the economy. However, European wine is facing increasing competition, especially from the Eastern European countries, the USA, South America, South Africa and Australia. Fair competition must be ensured, and one particular fraudulent practice in the wine market is the addition of glycerol to improve poor-quality wine. Glycerol is a natural constituent of wine, being produced during the natural fermentation process. The amount of glycerol naturally present varies within an acceptable range according to the type of grape, growing conditions and so on. The proportion of glycerol in an authentic wine could be 6-10% of the amount of ethanol.

Suspicion arose that some suppliers were adding glycerol when inspectors found differences in the glycerol concentration of wine in bottles compared to the 'same' wine in the cask. The GLYCEROL project team, which includes five partners from four member states, is developing existing gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methods for determining impurities thought to come from added glycerol which had been produced either from fats or from petroleum. Two marker compounds (3-methoxy-1,2-propandiol (3-MPD) and dicyclic glycerols) are formed during the manufacture of glycerols. If they are found to be present in wine, some of the glycerol in the wine must have been added. As project coordinator Michele Lees points out, "Estimating the marker compounds alone may not be enough, as some people are now trying to sidestep detection by using very pure glycerol. So, the team is also using analysis of the stable isotopes 13C, 3H and 18O to determine the exact source of the glycerol found in wine." By testing the methods at different research institutions, the team hopes to validate at least two of them so that used in combination they will give food enforcement authorities all the information they need.

Genetically modified crops

So far, twelve genetically modified crop plants (GMOs) have been authorised by the EU; these are varieties of corn, rapeseed, soybean, tomato and chicory. In the future it is likely that more will be approved. Food products containing material derived from a GMO are required by EU legislation to show this on the label (1). New measures proposed in July 2001 (2) will require the traceability and revise the labelling of food and feed products produced from GMOs. In order to ensure that GMO material is not included in food products without due labelling, to deceive the consumer, test methods are needed to prove its presence. Like all food fraud investigations, these methods must be validated and capable of providing irrefutable evidence in a court of law.

A group of eight public and private-sector research institutions from five countries, working on the GMOchips project, is developing methods to identify the presence of specified gene sequences in food samples, ie to determine if any genetically modified material is present. With the approval of twelve varieties of GMO, they need to be able to detect twelve specific gene sequences. According to Jose Ramacle of the FacultÚs Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Belgium, the project is developing a combination of the existing polymerase chain reaction method (PCR) with a new 'biochip' technology.

"The PCR method available until now can detect GMO material," says Ramacle, "but only for one plant variety at a time. The group has developed the PCR technique so that one assay can now be used for all twelve varieties; the PCR is used to amplify the GMO material so that it can be determined readily by biochip estimation. Biochips consist of one strand of relevant sections of the double helix of DNA, attached to a glass or plastic base in small spots. When PCR has indicated that some GMO material is present, the material is added to the spots on the biochips and if any element of the GMO material matches the biochip DNA, it will combine to reform the double helix (see diagram). This can be detected by measuring the colour change of the spot (by colorimetry) or by a fluorescence detector.

The great advantage of biochips is that they offer scope to identify many more (as yet unapproved) GMOs in the future. Apart from the manufacture of the biochips, which will be put into production and supplied ready for use, the test method is simple and suitable for relatively unsophisticated laboratories and developing countries; enabling the presence of GMO material to be readily identified close to its origin.

Feeding animals to animals

Since the outbreak of mad cow disease in the early 1990s, successive Commission decisions (94/381/EC, 99/129/EC, 2000/766/EC ) have banned the inclusion of mammalian tissues in feedingstuffs intended for ruminants (cattle and sheep). Since 2000 the ban has covered all processed animal proteins; i.e. meat and bone meal, meat meal, bone meal, blood meal, dried plasma and other products. The STRATFEED project brings together ten research centres, universities and a private company to improve the existing method of detection, to develop and validate new methods, and to set up a European sample bank of animal tissues, ingredients and feedingstuffs from a wide range of sources and countries.

Until now the main method of detection has been microscopy. The STRATFEED project is developing this further by linking a conventional microscope with a near infrared spectrometer. Used together, they enable the researcher to identify visually the particles in a feedingstuff and to determine the near-IR spectrum of each individual particle (see picture). Near-IR spectroscopy is also used to determine the composition of a mixture of particles in a sample of feedingstuff. If a sample is 'spiked' with animal meal, this method can determine the concentration of animal meal.

Further investigations are developing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA sequencing of feedingstuff to determine whether it is plant or animal in origin, and even whether it is pork, beef or lamb. Feed samples spiked with meat and bone meal at various concentrations will be tested in the different laboratories to ensure comparability of the methods. The group will aim to validate a combination of the methods: the IR techniques are good for rapid screening; and classical microscopy is reliable but slow. Project coordinator Pierre Dardenne says, "The 'golden method' would be PCR and DNA sequencing, as this could prove beyond doubt the complete nature of feedingstuff additives, which can stand up in a court of law. "

Salmon - wild or farmed?

At present there is no reliable method to distinguish a wild from a farmed fish, nor to tell its geographical origin. As wild salmon command a higher price than farmed salmon, the opportunity exists for farmed salmon to be mislabelled as wild. Also in some countries, salmon from some areas are seen as more desirable than from others - the main European salmon-producing areas are Scotland, Ireland and Norway. The price of fish from an area preferred by consumers of a particular country is higher, and again there is scope for fraud. A further factor is that when a country produces a large quantity of any product, the price tends to fall, and anti-dumping duties are levied over a certain amount of the product exported or sold. Producers of large amounts of farmed fish can be tempted to mislabel their fish, to hide its origin and avoid anti-dumping duties. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the European Commission has published a new regulation (No. 2065/2001, 22 October 2001) on fish labelling, which requires that fish be labelled as to their origin starting on 1 January 2002.

Since September 2001 a consortium of five partners in France, Italy, the UK and Norway has been working to develop a validated method to enable official laboratories to determine exactly where fish come from, and whether or not they are wild. The partners under the COFAWS project will examine a range of techniques: determining deuterium distribution in the fatty acids by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR); oxygen and carbon isotope levels by isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS); distribution of fatty acids in triglycerides and the composition of the fatty acid mixture by gas chromatography and 13C NMR.

According to Karine Wietzerbin of Eurofins Scientific , "All the methods will be tested on salmon of known origin from the major European fisheries, and then a statistical analysis will show which parameters are most informative." The combination of methods chosen to distinguish wild from farmed fish may not be the same as the best combination to determine the geographic origin. After further tests and refinements using samples from the marketplace, the protocols will be validated to European and ISO standards.

The research will help maintain the market for genuine wild salmon (without unfair competition) and will contribute to a quality labelling system for salmon which is organically farmed, or caught in a particular geographic region. It will also be an aid in the enforcement of the new EU regulations.

Antibiotics and growth promoters

In order to protect human health, a number of antibiotics (avoparcin, bacitracin-zinc, spiramycin, tylosin and virginiamycin), and growth promoters (carbadox and olaquindox) in former use as feed additives for food animals in the EU have been withdrawn. These antibiotics were withdrawn as a precautionary measure, as they have been known to contribute to the development of bacterial resistance. The growth promoters had caused concern over the risk of toxicity to those who might eat food products from treated animals, as well as to operators at food production facilities.

The SIMBAG-FEED project involves one of the largest groups of collaborating institutes, with ten different organisations in eight EU member states. Five different analytical methods for detecting these antibiotics and growth promoters are being developed and improved, with a view to developing a control strategy for determining whether they have been included in feedingstuffs. Microbiological inhibition tests determine the activity of antibiotics by preventing or restricting bacterial growth. The other methods being tested are high-voltage electrophoresis, thin-layer chromatography (TLC), high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and liquid chromatography in conjunction with mass spectrometry (LC-MS). "Probaly three or four of the methods will be selected to become part of the control strategy, including multi-screening and (multi-)confirmatory methods," says project co-ordinator Jacob de Jong of the State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products in the Netherlands. Once these methods have been thoroughly studied with the help of about 30 - mainly official - European control laboratories, they will be implemented in EU legislation or will become European standards. The group will also prepare a bank of reference standards of the banned substances in sufficient quantities to supply the official control laboratories of the member states with samples for at least ten years.

(1) Council Regulations (EC) 258/97, 1139/98, 49/2000 and 50/2000
(2) COM(2001)182 and COM(2001) 425

Europe's food safety infrastructure
What's in your wine glass?
Genetically modified crops
Feeding animals to animals
Salmon - wild or farmed?
Antibiotics and growth promoters

Key data

Research under the Growth Programme's Measurements and Testing activity is developing a wide range of analytical techniques capable of identifying the nature and origin of specific substances in food or animal feedingstuffs, which provide evidence that EU food law has been contravened in the production process.


Five projects selected from the Measurements and Testing generic activity of the Growth Programme of the Fifth Framework Programme for R&TD (FP5); starting in 2001 and running for between 24 and 48 months. They are:

  • COFAWS - Confirmation of the origin of farmed and wild salmon and other fish (project no. G6RD-2001-00512);

  • GMOchips - New technology in food science facing the multiplicity of new released GMO (project no. G6RD-2000-00419);

  • GLYCEROL - Determination of glycerol in wine - comparison and validation of existing methods (project no. G6RD-2000-00416);

  • SIMBAG-FEED - Screening and identification methods for official control of banned use of antibiotics and growth promoters in feedingstuffs (project no. G6RD-2000-00413);

  • STRATFEED - Strategies and methods to detect and quantify mammalian tissues in feedingstuffs (project no. G6RD-2000-00414.

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