Perspectives on Food Safety: A Conversation with Markus Lipp

A Conversation with Markus Lipp

A conversation about Food Integrity with Markus Lipp, Ph.D., senior director of food ingredients, USP  

There are many aspects of food safety to be considered throughout the food supply chain. Intentional adulteration, contaminants and microbiological control among the “themes” that permeate food safety discussions, while consumers’ only question might be “Is this food safe for me to eat?”

USP plays a key role in helping to ensure food safety at the ingredient level, by developing written quality standards and guidelines, as well as reference materials – physical samples to be compared to suppliers’ ingredients, giving food manufacturers and formulators an opportunity to verify that the ingredients they are procuring are of acceptable quality.

In the first part of the “Examining Food Safety” series, Quality Matters talked to Markus Lipp, USP’s senior director of food ingredients, about food integrity and the work USP develops in this area.

How would you define food integrity?

In every discussion about food safety, the term “food integrity” comes up. It really means different things to different stakeholders in the food supply chain. I like to refer to food integrity as guaranteeing that a food ingredient remains the same throughout the food supply chain, regardless of how long that supply chain might be. If you formulate a product with milk powder, for example, that ingredient – milk powder – either needs to remain unchanged from the moment you procure it from a supplier to the moment someone feeds a child with infant formula containing milk powder. If any changes do occur, they need to be communicated to the purchaser by appropriately labeling the ingredient to indicate the changes made.

So, the same ingredient you start with may be changed when it gets to a final product?

Absolutely. Where there is an opportunity for someone to make financial gain, he/she will try. Unfortunately, adulterating food ingredients for economic gain is an activity the food industry is well aware of, and because sometimes the supply chain for certain ingredients is very long, there are many opportunities to adulterate ingredients. 

Are you talking about reports of extra virgin olive oil being adulterated with cheaper oils, for example?

Yes, but also much more than that. One could argue that some of the most commonly adulterated ingredients, like oils, seafood, spices, juices, etc., only have a financial impact for consumers who are deceived into buying many times expensive goods when they are buying cheaper alternatives. But it really is much more than that. Food integrity is directly related to food safety.

How so?

There are many consequences to adulterating food. To start with, only the individuals responsible for the adulteration know about the identity and quality of the adulterants they are introducing to the supply chain. Unless the adulterer is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the safety of the new ingredient he/she is introducing, there is no guarantee that the addition, dilution or replacement of an ingredient with another won’t harm consumers. We can safely assume that for someone committing food fraud, the well-being and safety of others may not their first priority. There’s a constant public health risk that isn’t greater just because adulterers want repeat business and continued profit.

Unfortunately, we mostly know about food fraud cases when something goes wrong. Take the very famous protein adulteration case in China, in 2007. It was only discovered because the melamine that had been used turned out to be very toxic to animals and humans alike. For every case of economically motivated adulteration discovered, I’m sure that are many others that go undetected.

Why should manufacturers worry about food fraud if it is largely undetected?

When food fraud is discovered, it doesn’t only shatter consumer trust in a particular brand, but in the ingredient or product as a whole category, so it’s in every stakeholder’s interest to fight food fraud. Take the horse meat fraud example. It definitely destroyed consumers trust in the particular brand of ground beef involved in the scandal, but it also damaged any ground beef producer in Europe. It was a matter of chance that the horse meat used did not contain harmful substances.

Can you catch all food adulteration?

You can’t. And you cannot test exhaustively to eliminate any possibility of adulteration. It’s expensive and not practical. Millions of tons of food ingredients and products are in circulation at any point in time in the food supply chain, and adulterers are smart enough to find new ways of “fooling” the available tests.

The approach we propose to anyone worried about food adulteration is a vulnerability assessment. What is the source of the ingredient? How long is the ingredient’s supply chain? What are the possible points where adulteration could occur? What are the likely adulterants? Those are some of the questions to be asked before deciding which tests to perform to guarantee ingredient integrity.

That’s the approach USP is trying to propose to stakeholders and soon we hope to have a “toolkit” to help them through the decision tree of what to test and how to test, which related guidelines and methods to use.

What else is USP doing to curb food fraud?

We look at food integrity at the ingredient level. We don’t test olive oil or other food products for authenticity, but we know of several institutions and organizations that have reported food fraud cases. Recognizing that it is hard to get all information from a unique source, we have compiled a database of all reported cases of food fraud we could find in scholarly articles and media reports. The Food Fraud Database today is a source of information for industry as well as regulators to help identify vulnerable ingredients and possible adulterants.

The database is just a small piece of USP’s work to fight food fraud. The core of our work is in developing food ingredients quality standards so that manufacturers and suppliers can “speak the same language” when procuring their ingredients. The standards in the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC), USP’s compendium of food ingredients, serves as a dictionary for the food trade, where minimum quality specifications are described in detail. Regulators also make use of the FCC in the same way for enforcement purposes, where specifications for food ingredients play a role.

The standards in the FCC are developed by our food scientists in collaboration with groups of volunteer experts from academia, industry and regulatory agencies that inform and guide USP’s work, so that the resulting standards are useful to all stakeholders, while not locking out legitimate food ingredients.

Serious suppliers and manufacturers understand that food safety is a pre-competition condition, and USP is fortunate to serve as a resource and facilitator between representatives of the food industry, academics and regulators interested in combating food adulteration.

Visit our Web site to learn more about USP's relationship with food ingredients.

Markus Lipp is director of food ingredients at USP.