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Food adulteration is a serious threat to consumers, and its impact ranges from relatively harmless to fatal, depending on the severity of the infraction and who ends up consuming the adulterated food. But what exactly is food adulteration, and what is FSMA doing to help prevent it?
Defining Food Adulteration
Food adulteration is a broad category of mishandled or misrepresented foods, so it helps to understand it by breaking it down into four main categories.
Adulterated food is food that meets any of these four criteria:
- Contains a poisonous or deleterious substance. For example, if a batch of Brie cheese is found to contain Listeria, it’s considered adulterated. The only exemptions are if the adulteration is naturally occurring, or if levels are so low they don’t pose a threat to public health
- Contains an added poisonous or added deleterious substance. The same restrictions apply here
- Exists in a container that is composed, in part or in whole, of a poisonous or deleterious substance. This may be intentional or unintentional
- Bears any chemical or pesticide residue that is unsafe. Any chemicals or pesticides that are safe for human contact and/or consumption are not considered adulterated
In common use, food adulteration may also refer to food that is, at least in part, fraudulent. This may include food that is misrepresented or mislabeled, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Some of the most common adulterated foods include vanilla extract, maple syrup, wine, apple juice, coffee, orange juice, saffron, honey, milk, and olive oil.
For example, Italian olive oil, which is expensive, is often replaced by Greek olive oil, which is a cheaper substitute. Some countries’ milk supplies are also tainted with melamine, which makes the product appear richer in protein than it actually is.
Risks of Adulterated Food
Some companies adulterate food as a consequence of intentional actions, often designed to increase profitability or cut corners. Others end up adulterating food unintentionally because of lax standards and regulations. Either way, adulterated food costs the world economy $49 billion each year, and comes with some significant risks for human consumption:
- Food impurity. First, food may end up being “impure” or may contain ingredients it wasn’t intended to contain. This could be anything from residue of pesticides to metal or glass, or even a completely different substance. Consumers need to know exactly what they’re consuming
- Contamination. Adulterated food may have a higher likelihood of becoming contaminated at a later date, such as decomposing or becoming infected with bacteria
- Allergens. Mislabeled or misrepresented products may contain allergens that consumers aren’t aware of. If the wrong person consumes one of these products, they may suffer a severe allergic reaction
- Nutritional needs. Adulterated food may also lead people to believe they’re getting nutritional needs when they aren’t. This is especially important for infants, children, and adolescents, who need adequate intake and sufficient vitamins and minerals for healthy growth
How FSMA is Stepping In
Thankfully, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rulings help control food authenticity and reduce food adulteration. FSMA operates in five main categories, each of which bears some impact on the possibility of adulterated food:
Preventative controls. FSMA shifts the focus of the FDA from responding to food contamination threats to actively preventing them. New rules and regulations for food producers and distributors make it less likely that food will be adulterated
Inspection and compliance. These new rules aren’t just for show—the FDA now inspects production centers more frequently, ensuring their equipment, facilities, and workers are all following procedures appropriately, and all food products are suitable for human consumption
Imported food safety. Though not always the case, many foreign food production facilities have less strict regulations for food production, and therefore pose a greater risk to consumers. FSMA increases imported food safety through FSVP and other programs
Response time. The FDA has also given more power to respond to certain threats. For example, if the FDA learns of an adulterated food product, it has the power to institute a mandatory recall. It may also impose penalties for the offending production or distribution centers until the source of the adulteration is found and corrected. Are you prepared for an FDA recall?
Better partnerships. Thanks to FSMA, the FDA is working closer with local and state regulatory institutions, as well as foreign bodies, to help decrease the risk of food adulteration in many different areas
Editor's Note: The final rule for FSMA Section 204 was published in November 2022 and sets requirements for food traceability recordkeeping for designated foods on the FDA's Food Traceability List (FTL). Read our blog The Roadmap to Enhanced Traceability Recordkeeping to learn more about this important food safety legislation.
Other companies and organizations are stepping up their game to proactively protect consumers against food adulteration (and improve productivity at the same time). Food Safety Magazine recommends three main types of solutions to seek:
- Greater proactivity. First, every business in the supply chain needs to take greater proactive action to prevent adulterated food threats before they become a problem. This means knowing your suppliers, conducting regular inspections, instituting stricter, safer handling regulations, and resisting the natural decline of enforcing those regulations
- Higher levels of transparency. Components of a supply chain also need to establish higher levels of transparency and information sharing. It’s hard to trace the exact path of the food products or ingredients you’ve received without some way to share and publicize that information. Thankfully, products like FoodLogiQ Connect are emerging to help suppliers connect with one another, and establish checks and balances to ensure all partners are adhering to safety standards
- Better governmental oversight. Governments and regulatory bodies also need to take a larger role in managing adulterated food, especially on an international scale. FSMA is a good first step, but it’s only one set of new regulations, and it applies only to one nation. These agencies should work together to share more information and potential ways to fight back against adulterated food
How FoodLogiQ Can Help
Worried about your company's compliance status with FSMA standards on food adulteration?
FoodLogiQ Connect is the platform that keeps food traceability at the core of what we do - giving you the ability track food product with true farm-to-fork accuracy. Pinpoint exactly where adulterated food has gone in your supply chain, and remove it with precision.