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To protect and defend...our food

The U of M's National Center for Food Protection and Defense is making sure that casualties of food fraud are less likely to be on the menu.

March 11, 2013

Very few people in the United States are inclined to eat horse meat. It's not on the collective cultural palate—whatever its merits elsewhere in the world. Europeans aren't too fond of it on the whole either, as demonstrated by the recent uproar over the adulteration of beef in multiple countries there.

Fortunately, so far at least, horse meat hasn't been found in the U.S., and with the help of the University of Minnesota National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), horse meat and other edible casualties of Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA) or "food fraud" are less likely to be on the menu anytime soon.

Big money motivation

The horse meat scandal is one more addition to what has become a $10–15 billion per year problem in the food industry. EMA is essentially the mislabeling of food or the willful addition of inferior or undeclared ingredients for economic gain. And with an ever more complicated, globalized food chain, the opportunities to pad everything from beef to olive oil with false ingredients are considerable. Indeed, it seems today that nearly everything affects the food supply; a butterfly flaps its wings…and oops, there's a butterfly in your burger—or worse.

And the problem is thought to be widespread. NCFPD estimates that an estimated 10 percent of the food we buy on the shelf may be adulterated. Still, in most cases food adulteration doesn't pose a health risk. The perpetrators are not intending to cause harm—because if it's detected, their system is shut down and they don't make money.

Still, EMA has caused serious health consequences, and so researchers with the NCFPD are developing tools to help regulators and the food industry reduce and prevent incidents. One, an EMA Incidents Database, catalogs incidents of fraud since 1980, and identifies their characteristics—from the type of adulterant used in the food to how the regulatory system was evaded.

A second database focuses on susceptibility—which ingredients are susceptible to being tampered with, and the standards by which to test and ensure those ingredients are what they claim to be, says U of M research associate Karen Everstine. Both databases are available to industry and regulators at foodshield.org.

Researchers are also developing a tool—FIDES (Focused Integration of Data for Early Signals)—to identify and warn of food threats on a global scale so that companies and regulators can focus their limited resources on high-risk situations. The tool pieces together weather information, global trade data, pricing indexes, policy changes, political and civil unrest, and more so that the data can be analyzed and used in a predictive and meaningful way prior to people getting ill, says NCFPD director Amy Kircher.

Consumer watch

There are a few things you can do on a personal level to reduce your chance of falling victim to food fraud, say Kircher and Everstine.

  1. Just like that Rolex you got for $15, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So, rule number one for the consumer is just that. "If you see a liter of extra virgin olive oil at your local dollar store for $4, the chances of it being 100 percent extra-virgin are pretty slim," says Kircher.
  2. Buy from reputable companies that have a vested interest in protecting their brand. They're doing what they can to protect their supply chains and their name.
  3. When possible, buy in whole food form—not preprocessed foods. Buy an orange, not orange juice, and juice it yourself. Buy coffee beans, not ground coffee.

Country of origin

To illustrate FIDES, consider that in 2011, three-quarters of Thailand was flooded. Thailand is the world's number one exporter of shrimp. When the country flooded, it lost much of its shrimp harvest, says Kircher, so the world should have seen a decrease in the amount of shrimp available on the global market.

"If that decrease doesn't exist, somebody else has entered the market. Someone could legitimately enter the market with a safe product…but this tool allows us to say, 'the conditions are right for adulteration,' and then alert companies and regulators that they should test shrimp at a higher rate than normal," says Kircher.

Everstine says that the tool will help to monitor the myriad of influences on the worldwide farm-to-fork food chain, and to detect incidents of EMA before they cause public health harm.

"With these long supply chains, or globalized food supply, it puts us more at the mercy of the regulatory systems in those countries where our food is coming from," says Everstine.

Food nexus

The intent of the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act passed in January of 2011—called the most sweeping reform of food safety laws since the 1930s—is preventative. But NCFPD has been working toward preventing food contamination ever since it was chosen in 2004 by the Department of Homeland Security as a Center of Excellence—the only one of its kind in the nation focused solely on food protection and defense. Since then it has partnered with companies like Cargill, 3M, Target, General Mills, Land O'Lakes, and government agencies like the USDA, FDA, and the UN—all with an interest in keeping food safe for the consumer.

Here at the U of M, more than 20 colleges and centers are working together on issues related to food and protecting the global food supply through the U's Food Policy Center.

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