Issue #23 2022-01-31
A “safe” pesticide is linked to microbial food-borne illnesses, plus food fraud databases and hazards from packaging
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Food fraud databases compared
Food safety hazards from packaging and shipping containers
A “safe” pesticide is linked to microbial food-borne illnesses
Just for fun (what’s that cheese?)
Food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week
Gong hei fat choy (恭喜发财) - Happy New Year!
In this week’s issue of The Rotten Apple I share some absolutely crazy (bad crazy) new research that suggest the organic pesticide Bt might be causing microbial food-borne illnesses. Plus, food fraud databases - the current range of commercial products is a bit confusing - and hazards from food packaging.
This issue has a long list of food fraud incidents that were added to the Trello food fraud database in the past week, although many occurred in previous weeks, or even last month. Also some food fraud horizon scanning for herbal supplements.
Thank you for your continued support of The Rotten Apple. It’s great to receive so much positive feedback every week. Keep sharing it among your network, an (even) wider readership will help me to keep providing independent, ad-free reportage on the (food) stuff that matters.
Food Fraud Databases Compared
If you’re confused by the current selection of commercial food fraud databases, you’re not alone. Mergers, acquisitions, and name changes have made it hard to understand which database is which – and which one is best for you.
There are four well-known, pay-to-use search tools for food fraud information.
(1) EMAlert by Battelle. This database has been around for many years, but no longer has a high profile. It still exists, but contains information for only a limited number of commodities.
(2) HorizonScan (FERA). This tool was developed by the UK government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). It is widely used and includes alert systems and information about food safety, food fraud and suppliers.
(3) Decernis’ Food Fraud Database (formerly the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) Food Fraud Database). The Decernis Food Fraud Database includes scholarly articles on testing and detection methods as well as food fraud incidents.
(4) Agroknow's FoodAkai uses sophisticated AI to analyse data from global food safety agencies to offer insights into hazards in raw materials, ingredients and products. Like HorizonScan, it includes food safety as well as food fraud issues.
FoodChainID is another big name in food fraud tools and they also list a product called HorizonScan™ on their website.
Wait, what, are there two HorizonScans?
To find out more, I got on a call with food fraud expert Dr. Karen Everstine from Decernis (another food fraud Karen!). It turns out that FoodChainID is the exclusive US Distributor of HorizonScan (the one developed by FERA), which is still distributed by FERA in non-US markets. FoodChainID also owns Decernis, which owns the (formerly USP) Food Fraud Database. According to Karen, FoodChainID also “partners” with EMAlert. This makes FoodAkai the only paid tool that is independent of FoodChainID.
Prices vary depending on the number of users you need and whether you are a consultant or a single food company. There are also free tools, but that’s for another day.
🍏 Links: 🍏
Hazards from packaging and shipping containers; two unusual food safety issues
(1) Norovirus. It’s one of the most infectious agents known to man, with just a few viral particles needed to make someone sick. In 2012 more than 11,000 people were sickened by norovirus from a single batch of frozen strawberries. Eleven thousand! Norovirus particles are not only freeze resistant, they are also able to persistent on surfaces for weeks after a contamination event.
It’s easy to imagine, then, that if norovirus particles were to get on to food packaging that they could cause an outbreak.
Now, it’s happened. Last month, 123 people became sick with norovirus in a town in Slovenia. All the sick people had shopped in the same store on the same day, which was a busy day just before Christmas.
Investigators initially suspected that contaminated food and/or infected workers at the store were the source of the outbreak. Some of the sick people had purchased steak tartare, a raw meat dish. However medical tests showed that none of the shop’s employees were shedding norovirus and the food samples showed no signs of contamination or mishandling.
What’s interesting about this outbreak is that around 10% of the people who became sick after visiting the store did not eat anything from the store. Others who had eaten steak tartare from the store did not get sick.
The investigators concluded that the outbreak was likely to have been caused by packaging that had become contaminated with norovirus after being handled by infected customers.
Norovirus quick facts: Infective dose: low. Incubation period: 24 to 48 hours. Symptoms: diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain. Transmission: faecal-oral. Vomitus also contains viral particles.
(2) Lead. You don’t want it in your food. There is no safe level of exposure to lead. So when New Zealand authorities found higher than expected levels of lead in imported raw sugar they initiated a recall. They believe the lead got into the sugar while it was being transported in a ship which had previously been used to transport “industrial materials”. Yuck!
As consumers we rely on food transport companies to make good decisions (and follow protocols) when shipping and storing bulk food. Unfortunately, there is no public information about exactly how (or if) the sugar was packed or what the “industrial materials” might have been. Hopefully this recall has prompted importers and shipping agents to re-assess their practices.
In short: 🍏 Two new food safety incidents from packaging and transport containers are discussed 🍏 One was a viral hazard, one a chemical hazard 🍏 Both incidents resulted in contamination from food touching contaminated surfaces 🍏
German noro outbreak: https://www.eurosurveillance.org/content/10.2807/1560-7917.ES2014.19.8.20719
No way?! An unexpected source of microbial food-borne illness
A bacterium that is used as a “safe”, “green”, non-chemical pesticide on food crops might be making people sick.
Researchers have found a plausible link between food-borne illnesses and commonly used strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
B. thuringiensis is a bacterium that has powerful insecticidal properties. It’s been used for 100 years to control insect pests on agricultural crops, including food crops. So far, so good. It is also very closely related to a strain/group of the bacterium Bacilllus cereus. Yes, that’s B. cereus, the famous food-borne illness bug.
The World Health Organisation estimates that B. cereus intoxication occurs at a rate of approximately 21 cases per 100,000 people per annum in developed countries.
Interestingly, it’s difficult to tell the difference between B. cereus and B. thuringiensis using traditional microbial methods. And that means that any illnesses caused by B. thuringiensis, which is not officially recognised as a food-borne pathogen, may be attributed to B. cereus.
To investigate the link between Bt biopesticides and food-borne illness, Swiss researchers compared the genetic profiles of (a) bacteria from fresh food they obtained in Switzerland, with (b) bacteria isolated from the faeces of people who got sick in a food-borne outbreak in Austria, with (c) bacteria isolated from lettuce that was linked to a foodborne outbreak in Germany.
They found that fourteen percent of the Swiss food samples they tested had B. thuringiensis present at low levels, including on tomatoes, bell pepper, rocket salad and endives.
When they genetically tested the bacteria isolated from those foods, they matched strains of B thuringiensis that are used as biopesticides. This makes sense: if Bt is used to treat food crops, then it’s reasonable to assume that you will find it on food. But….
The researchers also found them to be genetic matches for strains of B thuringiensis that were isolated from food-borne illness outbreaks.
They found that some of the biopesticide strains contain genes that encode for toxins including enterotoxin. Enterotoxins are the things that make B cereus victims sick. The bacteria isolated from food-borne illness samples had the same toxin gene profiles as their most-closely matched biopesticide strains.
All the food and faecal isolates – the bacteria that were isolated from food and sick people – were “genomically matched with one of six widely used biopesticide strains, strongly suggesting biopesticide products as their source”
Their conclusion: there is “A plausible link between food-borne illnesses and biopesticide strains”. Wow.
While the researchers note that this is a small study and more work needs to be done, it’s quite alarming. Bt pesticides are widely used and organic-approved. Are we really spraying organic food crops with bacteria that can cause food-borne illness? Surely you can’t B. cereus (be serious)*!
In short: 🍏 Bt is an organic-approved pesticide that can include viable bacteria 🍏 The bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, is difficult to distinguish from the food-borne pathogen Bacillus cereus 🍏 Strains of B. thuringiensis used as pesticides on food crops are genetic matches for bacteria isolated from food-borne illness outbreaks 🍏 Researchers have concluded there is a plausible link between illnesses and Bt pesticides🍏
WHO B. cereus data: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/199350/9789241565165_eng.pdf
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Just for fun
Shazam is an app that can tell you which song you are listening to, and PlantSnap is like Shazam for plants. Now there’s a Shazam for French cheese!
It’s called Cheezam, of course!
Food Fraud Incidents and Horizon Scanning
Food fraud incidents added to Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week
Authorities shut down a factory making adulterated or fake honey with chemicals, unapproved colours, and sugar syrup – Pakistan
Smuggled liquor, including Scotch Whisky and imported beer that had evaded excise duties and levies, was seized by authorities - India
A contraband liquor making facility has been shut down after authorities found fake excise labels and other equipment for making bootleg alcohol - India
Fish and shrimp that had been fished by trawl net when the fishery was closed for the season were confiscated by authorities – Mozambique
Alcohol found at illegal trading outlets was 'flushed away' by officials - South Africa
Factories making spices with harmful dyes have been shut down – Pakistan
People who sold expired meat and pastry that was supposed to be destroyed were receiving bribes and have been arrested - Georgia
Sharks and rays, including endangered species are being sold as "cod" and "marlin" in retail outlets and restaurants in Mexico - Mexico
Six people were arrested in relation to a sea cucumber smuggling operation - Hong Kong
A man who was making "country liquor" but disguising it as soft drink was arrested – India
Seventy percent (n = 14) of "all-natural" turmeric extract supplements purchased from the USA retail market were found to contain curcumins from non-natural sources. 15/02/2022
Milk has been discarded by authorities after on-the-spot testing found low levels of expected substances including milk fat – Pakistan
There have been more arrests and raids in Spain over pork meat fraud. People and companies have been accused of production without proper controls, loss of traceability, incorrect labelling and manipulation of dates - Spain
Milk adulterated with detergent and added water has been seized – Pakistan
Forty percent of "100%" Krill oil products (n = 55) were found to contain unexpectedly high levels of linoleic acid, which is an indicator that vegetable oils were present in the products – South Korea
Food items used to attempt to smuggle drugs across border – USA
Food fraud horizon scanning (other updates to the Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week)
Turmeric extracts (supplements)
A study that analysed turmeric extracts from the USA retail market that were labelled as “all natural” found that around 70% (n = 14) contained synthetic curcumins. The researchers concluded that most adulterated “all natural” turmeric extracts probably contain a mixture of authentic “natural” turmeric ingredients and synthetic adulterants. They reported that a supplements industry expert told them that “the adulterers buy the turmeric powder at ∼ $5/kg and add synthetic curcumin to it.” And speculated that this might be done to pass DNA tests.
They also reported that cheaper turmeric extracts are more likely to be marketed with inauthentic “all-natural” labels than more expensive supplements. 15/02/2022 (Journal issue date) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814621020136?via%3Dihub
Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng)
Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is said to sometimes be adulterated or substituted with non-root parts of the plant, or with related species of the same genus (Eleutherococcus) or with Chinese silk vine (Periploea sepium).
Here’s what you missed last month:
The UK’s National Food Crime Unit (FFCU) shared details of it’s current investigations, including into country-of-origin fraud in packaged meat (Issue #19)
Emerging food pathogens that might not be on your radar yet, including viruses, protozoa and bacteria like Streptococcus agalactiae and Arcobacter spp were described in Issue #17.
*Who doesn’t love a B. cereus pun 😎?!