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Sophisticated Test Techniques are a Media Time bomb…

In an embarrassing press release last week, Food Standards Scotland alongside the FSA (Food Standards Agency) were forced to rescind a UK wide recall of ground cumin provided by the Bart Ingredients Company, after more detailed test results evidenced an entirely different result…

Additional testing by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) proved that almond protein was not found in the ingredient, it was in fact, traces of a spice called mahaleb resulting in adventitious cross-contamination. Mahaleb and almond originate from the same ‘Prunus’ family of trees and shrubs, but mahaleb is not one of the 14 allergens identified in food allergen legislation.

This situation highlights the enormous brand protection risks to food businesses even if it turns out that the incident was a false alarm.

The news cycle tyrant

Horror stories from the food industry and food supply chain,  makes for great media copy. But in reality, it is only the telling of bad news  that makes great copy, good news seldom gets noticed.

Compounding this issue is the speed of the news cycle to react to these headline grabbing stories, which results in untold damage being done to the unsuspecting company, before the media moves on to their next story. So if the story turns out to be incorrect, only a small correction gets posted in a hard to read place with a fraction of the space dedicated to the original story.

In the case of Bart Ingredients Company, now the story has been proven to be unfounded, the coverage stating this has been minimal, and posted in ‘insider industry’ sources where the public at large do not have access, unless they search for it specifically.

Verbal Information

QADEX advocate media caution

In suspected cases of the presence of adventitious cross contamination, we encourage the media to exercise more caution before they do irreparable and unnecessary damage to any company in the food industry.

Perhaps a guidance protocol or media code of practice could be established to assist in their journalistic investigations. Clearly, the media need to be able to investigate and publish their findings, and we encourage the sensible use of such investigations.

There are advantages to society in investigative journalists uncovering and publishing stories that might otherwise go unreported, but just like libel and other laws, they should seek to ensure a scientific and evidence based view. Where levels of product cross contamination which could be adventitious, or false positives, these should be corroborated in more detail before stories are printed which could be damaging to food businesses.

The devil is in the detail

Test sensitivity has increased to such a level over recent years that it is possible to detect DNA traces. The food supply chain has many opportunities for this to occur: from seed admixtures, shared storage and distribution, and manual product handling; for small levels of cross contamination to be introduced which could be detected in the final product using sensitive tests.

Yet we do not have accepted thresholds for what could be defined as adventitious cross contamination, or engagement with the media to explain that a positive test result may not always be what is seems to a journalist excited about the latest story.

The second batch of tests, were performed using a more complex, more expensive, and more specific methodology than the original process, which has thus far, only served to create headline media coverage and foster further distrust in our already over-cautious retail markets.

LGC used a type of analysis called “liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry” which, in combination with DNA testing, found that mahaleb could produce a false positive result for almond protein in cumin. This is the first time researchers have identified this type of reaction.

The preliminary – and much more basic tests, had been done using the ELISA method, invented by Dr Eva Engvall in 1971, while researching her Ph.D.in the University of Stockholm. It stands for Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay and uses a process of antibodies and colour change to identify the presence of a substance.

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Evidence of the different results

This was eventually provided by Michael Walker, Consultant Referee Analyst in the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, who said:

This has been a pioneering and resource intensive scientific investigation involving a large multidisciplinary team of scientists. Almond and other Prunus species in spices had received little attention.

We now know that ELISA detection is useful but only as a screening test. There are unusually high similarities in the DNA and protein of these related species that make it very difficult to tell them apart in spices. But thanks to the expertise of the molecular biologists and protein chemists in LGC we have developed what is, to the best of our knowledge, the world’s first DNA test for mahaleb and discovered subtle mass spectrometry differences to distinguish almond and mahaleb proteins.”

Can UK businesses protect themselves?

It is easy, and relatively cheap, for a reporter hunting for a story to purchase some food in a retail store and send to a lab for testing. But the reliability of some test results can often be called into question, whether as a result of how the samples are collected or the analytical methodologies used.

False positives are a reality of testing that industry experts have extensive experience dealing with, this experience is often not available to journalistics or overlooked in the excitement of a positive result likely to create a great headline.

The VITAL system from the Allergen Bureau in Australia gives a very useful methodology for setting thresholds for allergen cross contamination and introducing common sense into this whole debate. The same principles could be applied to all types of adventitious cross contamination.

QADEX Software can help…

All the usual best practices, ensure a robust supplier approval management system is in place, with detailed product risk assessments, comprehensive product specifications and extensive QA checks on intake to monitor compliance with raw material specification for at risk ingredients.
If you would like to know how a software system can assist with these requirements,  contact us here at QADEX.

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