As the scandal involving the sale of beef containing horse meat and labeled as 100% beef spreads throughout Europe, government officials and industry executives there have been quick to contend the issue is not food safety related. They are wrong, because the scandal exposes potential flaws in the food supply chain. Horse meat mixed with beef may be benign in and of itself, but is anyone reassured the companies caught up in the scandal would be able to detect any contaminant in their supply chain that poses a public health threat before it reaches the public?
The horse meat problem also should not be viewed as a regional issue. While the scope of the problem in Europe is widespread and has garnered significant media attention, the United States and other industrialized countries outside of Europe have had their share of issues. Most recently, the non-profit group Oceana conducted a study in the United States in which 1,215 samples of seafood were collected in 21 states. The group found one-third of the samples were mislabeled.
The Oceana investigation focused on regionally significant fish as well as commonly mislabeled seafood, such as red snapper, cod, tuna and wild salmon. Snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates, at 87% and 59%, respectively. Only 7 of the 120 red snapper samples collected were correctly labeled. More disturbing is fish on the Food and Drug Administration’s “do not eat” list for pregnant women and children, including tilefish and king mackerel, were sold in instances as safer species like red snapper, halibut and grouper.
It is easy to characterize the seafood supply chain, which is specialized based on how the raw material is harvested in the wild, processed and distributed, as unique. But research of food fraud incidents conducted by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a Maryland-based scientific body that sets standards for food ingredients, pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements, shows the problem to be broader. Products highlighted in the U.S.P.’s research include foodstuffs such as olive oil, milk, saffron, honey, coffee, tea, black pepper, turmeric, chili powder, cooking oil and clouding agents, which are used in beverages to improve their appearance.
Research into the incidences of food fraud is relatively new, and it is impossible to assess whether the problem is growing. As groups like the U.S.P. continue their work, the issue will come into greater focus and food companies as well as the appropriate regulatory agencies will have a better idea of how to respond. In the meantime, it is critical for food and beverage companies to reassess the control they have over their supply chains.
On Jan. 4, the F.D.A. issued a proposal that would require every manufacturer of food sold in the United States to develop and implement a written plan for preventing their food products from causing foodborne illness. The proposal would require companies to have a written food safety plan that includes a hazard analysis, preventive controls, monitoring procedures, corrective actions, verification procedures and a recall plan.
Each facility’s written hazard analysis must identify and evaluate known or reasonably foreseeable hazards for each type of food manufactured, packed or held at the facility to determine whether there are hazards that are reasonably likely to occur, including biological, chemical, physical and radiological. The analysis must include an evaluation of each identified hazard, including an assessment of the severity of illness or injury to humans if it were to occur.
There are parallels between the processes necessary to ensure food safety and prevent food fraud. As the scandal in Europe unfolds and as researchers continue to uncover new cases of fraud it is imperative food and beverage processors take the necessary steps to not only protect public health but also ensure public trust in the products they produce.