We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
The labeling of food products is essential to inform consumers what kind of products they are buying. EU harmonised rules on food labeling, presentation and advertising aim to protect consumers and facilitate trade inside and outside Europe.
Recently an initiative of the European Parliament (EP) has identified a number of foods such as: olive oil, fish, honey, dairy products and meat as being the target of fraudulent activities. This initiative calls for the development of technologies and methods to detect food fraud.
The JRC actions in the area of food authenticity contribute to achieving these goals by applying the best available science to develop widely accepted standard methods of analysis and best practices guides, underpinned by advanced measurement science.
Wine is a premier agricultural product of the EU and exported worldwide. It is crucial to keep up reputation of EU wine and to minimise malpractices, mainly sugaring and watering, that may undermine the position of EU wine on the internal and international markets.
The activities of the JRC in support of the EU wine legislation started with the establishment of the EU wine databank in 1991, followed by the creation of the European Office for Wine, Alcohol and Spirit Drinks (BEVABS) in 1993. It has played a fundamental role in helping the EU Member States to develop the scientific and technical competences needed to carry out isotopic analysis of wine. The databank contains the isotopic composition of wines collected from across the EU so that competent authorities in Member States can request information when disputes or court cases arise.
The wine reform in 2008 has confirmed the importance of EU quality wines linked to their geographical origin and varietal identification. Risk of fraud related to origin/variety exists; consequently, the remit of BEVABS was extended to cover those areas. In 2013, BEVABS became the European Reference Centre for Control in the Wine Sector to take into account the new scope.
Olive oil quality is regulated at international level by the International Olive Council (IOC) trade standard , Codex Alimentarius at EU level by Regulation (EEC) n° 2568/91 establishing a list of chemical and organoleptic characteristics, as well as methods for their analysis. This list and the methods are regularly updated to reflect scientific progress. Despite these, detection methods are lacking for certain fraudulent manipulations. In particular, the identification of illegal extension of extra virgin olive oil or virgin olive oil with soft deodorised olive oil or with carefully selected blends of other vegetable oils is quite challenging. Another contentious area is the objective evaluation of quality parameters related to “freshness”.
The JRC supported DG Agriculture and Rural Development in the mapping of research needs related to olive oil authenticity, which fed into the publication of a call in the Horizon 2020 programme. In addition, the JRC participates to the FP7 funded project Food Integrity which has a work package dedicated to olive oil.
The 'Chocolate Directive' allows the addition of up to 5 % of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, the so-called cocoa butter equivalents (CBEs), in chocolate. If CBEs are added, consumers have to be informed by appropriate labelling.
Member States' laws, regulations and administrative provisions have to comply with the Chocolate Directive. Assessing compliance of chocolate products with the labelling provisions cannot be done without appropriate methods of analysis. The chemical composition and physical properties of the CBEs resemble those of cocoa butter very closely, making them extremely difficult to quantify and in some cases even difficult to detect.
The JRC has developed a reliable analytical approach to detect and quantify CBEs in dark and milk chocolate. The methods have been validated in international trials and were standardised by ISO as well as the American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS). A software tool that helps calculating the amount of foreign fat present can be downloaded from below.
Trade in processed agricultural products such as chocolates and confectionaries, sweet drinks, biscuits and bakeries products that are made out of agricultural products such as sugar, milk, eggs, cereals and rice is subject to certain legal arrangements, amongst them the methods of analysis that have to be used for checking composition. Likewise, customs duties for imported agri-food products are based on certain characteristics and the methods for determining them play an important role in the classification of goods.
Customs laboratories in the Member States cooperate via the Group of Custom Laboratories, which is supported by DG Taxation and Customs Union. The JRC provides them with expert advice related to relevant analytical methods and carries out the necessary development if no methods are available (e.g. for the classification of meat according to heat treatment, content of milk fat, discrimination of tobacco varieties). The availability of such methods fosters international trade, helps to resolve disputes and prevents the evasion of customs duties.
Meat from male pigs may be tainted by a distinct bad smell, commonly known as boar taint. For that reason male piglets are surgically castrated at young age to avoid the potential off-flavour formation. Animal welfare concerns have triggered research into alternatives to surgical castration of male piglets with the long-term goal of abandoning it by 1 January 2018.
To avoid that tainted pork meat reaches our plates, appropriate detection methods need to be in place. The JRC is currently developing and validating a method that can serve as a reference for the elaboration of rapid tests in the slaughter houses as well as on the definition of the smell level that consumers will find unacceptable. Once available the method will be proposed for standardisation.
Metabolomics for food authentication: Cubero-Leon, E. et al (In press, Corrected Proof) (2013), "Review on metabolomics for food authentication", Food Research International.
A PCR-method for the detection of mackerel: Prado, M. (2013) Development of a real-time PCR method for the simultaneous detection of mackerel and horse mackerel", Food Control, 34 (1), pp. 19-23.