The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 021 - Shedding light on food fraud
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency come together in this special two-part episode on honey fraud in Canada. Hear a scientist from each organization discuss how they identify fraudulent products – and check out the CFIA's Inspect and Protect podcast for the perspective of a policy leader and a beekeeper!
Kirk: Welcome to The First Sixteen. I'm your co-host, Kirk Finken.
Sara: And I'm Sara Boivin-Chabot. Spring has been difficult this year for beekeepers, mainly due to a bee parasite, the varroa mite. And if there are researchers who are actively working on the subject, today we're telling you about another threat to the business model of beekeepers: the adulteration of honey.
Kirk: So, adulteration is food fraud. In the case of honey, it's like, diluting it with water and sugar for example, to make more profit or to cut prices.
Sara: And like pests and diseases, food fraud is changing every year.
Kirk: And of course when we're speaking about food fraud, we're also speaking about the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA. That's the government organisation that ensures, among other things, that the food on our shelves are authentic. They're always on the lookout for fraudsters, and they always have to have this technological advantage.
Sara: And this is why today we meet with a chemist from the Agency, Jonathan Haché, who talks about fraud detection processes. We also talk to Alain Clément, a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who is developing tools for us to stay ahead of the arms race against fraudsters. And this is where it gets interesting, because the CFIA also has a podcast, which is called Inspect and Protect. And in their podcast today, they meet an inspector and a beekeeper who will complete the portrait of food fraud.
Kirk: And they're going to be speaking specifically about the issues that arise from the adulteration of honey. So if you're coming to us from Inspect and Protect, a special welcome to The First Sixteen. And if you're with us first, well, you know, don't forget to listen to the Agency's episode to get the full picture about honey fraud.
Sara: So we speak first with Jonathan Haché, chemist for the CFIA. Jonathan, can we have a little history of the honey fraud file?
Jonathan: From my side, I've been doing sort of honey authenticity work for 20 plus years. Originally adulteration was a very sort of simple thing. It could be as easy as just diluting the syrups. And if you add, you know, 20%, maybe no one's going to notice. So it's moved on since then and it constantly gets a little more sophisticated, instead of adding a syrup that is easy to find, they have one that sort of mimics the honey a little more. The people who are, you know, fraudsters can hire chemists as well. So they can do the tests that we do and they can know, "Okay, well, I have found something that might get me past the test a little bit." So the fraud is getting more and more sophisticated, which means the testing has to get more and more sophisticated. So it's really trying to stay ahead of the game or at least not fall too far behind the game.
Kirk: So what technologies are used to detect fraud?
Jonathan: In the past it was straight chemistry techniques. Essentially, you know, how much moisture is in the sample? So that tells you a bit about dilution. Or how much sugar is in it? So if you're looking at just the glucose and the fructose, that's what we used to do. The sort of standard technique for the last 20 years is called stable isotope mass spectrometry. So it looks at a specific carbon and you can tell what the origin of the sugar is. So not just whether it's the same sugar, but whether it came from the same place or whether it comes from honey or from corn. And then more sophisticated syrups or different types like rice or beet, well that test can't find those. So now testing has moved on to use nuclear magnetic resonance, which is NMR. And it's really profiling the sugar. It paints a fingerprint, if you will. So there's a database of tens of thousands of authentic honey samples. And that gives you an idea of what this honey should be, and then you compare your sample against that database. So it's really a lot more sophisticated and it's a lot better at detecting very subtle adulteration and even to the point where there's some syrups are marketing as being able to pass the isotope ratio test. Well, they can get caught by this more sophisticated NMR test. And it's not a hundred percent either, because as soon as we come up with a way to test it through NMR, well, "they," if you will, will come up for a way to find the ones that will pass the NMR test. So it's cat and mouse a little bit.
Sara: Why is honey a product that is so often adulterated?
Jonathan: I mean, on its surface, it's just sugar and water, but it's very complicated when you get down to it, and there's so many different types of honey, different flavours of honey. And, you know, it can be pretty easy to pass off a honey with an extra 10% sugar in it because all the flavour's still there. And, you know, 10% . . . the cost of sugar is probably, you know, 5% of the cost of honey. So you can make a little bit of money, you know. And I think that's one of the reasons. And it's a little hard to find. It's not necessarily a health issue, so it's not something that people are, you know, shouting about. You know, it's different than if it was going to be "adulterated honey is going to kill you," which, you know, for the most part, it's not. It's okay. You're just getting cheated. But at the same time, it's, yeah, I think it just has to do with the nature of how easy it is to adulterate it, or was. It's getting harder and harder. And the fact that honey itself, it's got a range of taste and flavours that it's hard to detect. You know, the consumer tasting it, they're probably not going to notice a difference.
Kirk: And what so far has been the most innovative thing that a fraudster's done that you've seen?
Jonathan: I mean, the big one I find most interesting is if you can actually search for honey syrups that have specifically been developed to cheat the tests. So they'll be marketed as "Rice syrup, will pass C4 test," which is one of the tests, the isotope ratio test. So it's actually marketed as "It'll pass the test," so "Hey you can you can use this." So they do a lot of sophisticated stuff that, you know, they'll clean up the syrup through chemical methods or filtering methods to make it so that there's nothing there to help the there's nothing there that would make it detect it as a adulterated honey.
Sara: Do you have to spend time . . . like does someone on your team spend time on the internet and searching for new technologies and dark web, honey, fraudulent stuff?
Jonathan: Maybe not so much the dark web, but certainly one of the parts of the job is keeping up with the new technology, keeping up with, you know, other government colleagues that are doing the same thing. And what do they hear? On our Inspection and Programs side, they also will keep an eye on import exports, for example. And you go to conferences when you can to meet with the private labs, who often are the ones that are developing these tests or with large beekeeping companies that are, you know, producers and packers who are also interested in, you know, honest product because they don't want product they're buying and then reselling to be called fraudulent. It looks bad on them. So just a lot of the word of mouth, even just getting into these meetings and talking to people, you end up hearing things of, "Oh, that's happening? Okay, make a note and let's look at that when I get back to the lab and see if that's happening here in Canada." That kind of thing, yeah.
Kirk:Sara, you know, it sounds like it's a constant vigilance, a constant technical vigilance.
Sara: Yeah, and a space where innovation is needed. That's why we also spoke to Alain Clément, a researcher at AAFC's Saint-Hyacinthe research centre. As much as Jonathan was in the detection of fraud on a daily basis, Alain is more on the development of new tools to identify adulterated foods. He tells us about the technology he has developed with his team, the SpectrAAC-2, which allows us to determine the nature of the sample. Is it really honey? Oliver oil? But also freshness – is this oil from this year, or was it harvested three years ago?
Kirk: Yeah, no, it's really cool. It uses light and optical technologies. The optical spectrum, hence the name of the device: SpectrAAC-2. So, Mr. Clément, you specialize in food characterization. Before talking about your innovation, can you describe for us the optical techniques generally used to characterize food?
Alain: You know, there are several large groupings of optical methods. The best known is near infrared spectroscopy. It's a classic method that has existed since the 1960s. Food is exposed to a white lamp, then we recover the light that was reflected, or transmitted through the food. We analyze the light using a spectrometer to determine the chemical composition of water, fat, sugar, protein, etc. There's also Raman spectroscopy, which analyzes the light emitted by a food that's exposed to a laser beam. The advantage of Raman is that we can obtain information on the chemical composition of a food through its glass or plastic packaging.
Kirk: So near infrared and Raman spectroscopy. Is there anything else?
Alain: Then there's also fluorescence spectroscopy, which is a bit more recent. Fluorescence is light emitted by food when it's exposed to ultraviolet radiation. It's the aromatic compounds, and in particular the phenolic compounds, which are fluorescent. So with that, we can obtain information on the phenolic profile which is very specific to each type of food.
Sara: We're really getting into high tech here. And as for your innovation and detection, how do you use all these tools? It started with the Acer centre, right? The research centre for the maple syrup industry in Quebec?
Alain: Together with the Acer centre, we've developed a device called SpectrAcer which is currently being used in the industry. We created it because we couldn't find a commercial device that could screen for adulteration and flavor defects in maple syrup. And since then, SpectrAcer has been modified to make it capable of analyzing liquid and solid samples. There's also the SpectrAAC2, which is a simpler machine. It takes up little space, it is easily transportable. Food can be analyzed using up to eight miniaturized light sources at very precise wavelengths. This generates a mass of data that makes it possible to define a complex optical fingerprint that takes into account several classes of aromatic compounds. This module can be used for liquid or solid samples that have been ground into a sort of flour.
Sara: Foods that are the most often adulterated include olive oil and honey, so how could SpectrAAC-2 be used for example with these two products?
Alain: Well, first I would say that vegetable oils are a very favorable food matrix for optical spectroscopy. Their fluorescence signals are intense and easy to measure. Honey is a great matrix too. The signal we get from honey, both in fluorescence and in Raman spectroscopy, is really, really good. Honey is a slightly more viscous matrix, a little more difficult to work with, okay, but when we solved that problem with it . . . We developed a sampler that's easier to... It's easier to deposit the sample. And then there it is, it works really, really well. What we know about honey is that it's possible by fluorescence to determine the botanical origin of samples. Well, of course we never achieve exactly 100% in an analysis like that. Because of course, with flowers . . . bees aren't limited to a certain type of flower. But there are still dominant ones. And it's been demonstrated that we can determine the dominant botanical origin of honeys by fluorescence spectroscopy. The other thing about honey is that, what's very important, is the sugar profile. The glucose, fructose and sugar profile is naturally pretty restricted in honey.
Sara: If the profile is different, it's because there would be something added to the honey?
Alain: It could be, it could be. You know, it's a field of databases, of banks, of samples. We have to analyze a large number of samples to determine which is the region of concentration that's, you know, normal. There are always a few samples that escape, so we are in a paradigm of probability. A sample at a certain sugar profile level, well, it's starting to be improbable that it's pure honey. Maybe it's good. Maybe it's normal. It may not be a problem, but it becomes a sample which is interesting enough to send to the reference laboratory, where we can confirm the results by standard methods of analytical chemistry, you know, accepted methods and reference methods. Optical spectroscopy, for example. Methods that are good for rapid screening. It's really an excellent method, an excellent approach to screen, to see, to point to samples that are weird and different.
Kirk: This is very cool. It's like the SpectrAAC-2 is the X-ray vision to see what's in the food product very quickly. It sounds like a great frontline tool that makes for quicker detection of possible fraud, right?
Sara:I love the technology of it all. But I kind of want to bring this back to the everyday experience of the average Joe and Joanne.
Kirk: Right, yeah.
Sara: I had a last question for Jonathan. You know, our podcast is for and about people in the agri-food sector. But we are also all consumers of the food. What should we know about food fraud as consumers?
Jonathan: Everybody wants a deal. Right? And one of the things that I think is if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Right? So, people will do their shopping and buy the $1 pot of honey thinking, "Oh wow, look, great!" Well, there's a reason it was a dollar. Right? Someone had to make money somewhere. They're not losing money on it. Honey's expensive. You know, it's a labour-intensive product to make, to ship, to store, all that kind of thing. So it's kind of just . . . you have to sort of think about the provenance of something and think about, okay, what am I buying here? Is the cheapest product always the best product? Sometimes it's unavoidable, but that's the kind of thing that I always think about, is the background of these products. As a food scientist, I can't not look at a label when I when I buy something because the front is not the important part. Turn it around and read the ingredients and the ingredients if they're honest, which most of the time they are, then you know what you're getting. For the most part, things are actually pretty safe, pretty honest.
Kirk: Sara, you know, I think that those in the food industry are pretty aware, but I don't think most Canadians are aware to what extent we have a really safe food system where fraud is being mitigated and problematic products are seized or pulled off the shelf.
Sara: Every single day there are product recalls, warnings, and seizures by the CFIA.
Kirk: Yeah, you know, I subscribe to those recalls. You can even . . . you can subscribe to those, with their notification service. It's super useful. You know, beyond fraud, you have products that don't properly indicate their ingredients, and that's super dangerous for those with severe food allergies like folks in my house.
Sara: Speaking of subscribing, if you haven't already, tune in to the Inspect and Protect podcast at the CFIA for an inspector's and a producer's perspective on how things are going in the field.
Kirk: Take the opportunity to subscribe to both of our podcasts on your favourite listening platform, because you don't want to miss the next episodes.
Sara: Yes, and until then, you know what to do?
Kirk: I'm gonna try something new.
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