Issue #61 | Risky Claims | A Food Pathogen You've Probably Not Heard Of | Encephalitis from Cheese?!
Sources for Food Fraud News - the good, the bad and the ugly
Risks with Carbon Neutral Claims
Burkholderia cocovenenans – the food pathogen you might not have heard of
Food Safety News and Resources Roundup, including encephalitis from cheese
Food fraud incidents, updates and emerging issues
On the go? Paid subscribers get an audio version, so they can learn while they walk or drive 🎧
Welcome to Issue 61 of The Rotten Apple. And thank you to all of you who have become paid subscribers in the last week or two.
Many of you are signing up to get access to food fraud information that was previously free on the Food Fraud Risk Information Trello board. And it sucks to have to pay for something that you could previously get for free.
I don’t ever want you to feel like you have been forced into a paying subscription. The food fraud information in this newsletter can also be obtained from other organisations, some free and some paid. This month’s supplement for paying subscribers compares various sources of food fraud information, so you can check you are getting the best value for your company’s precious dollars/euros/rand/pounds.
If you are unhappy with the value you get from The Rotten Apple, I will cheerfully provide a pro-rated refund for the unused portion of your yearly subscription. Just write to me by replying to this email. You can also visit www.substack.com/settings to cancel, which will terminate your subscription at the end of your billing period.
In this issue I discuss the risks associated with carbon neutral claims on food products. If your company is pursuing carbon neutrality that is definitely worth a read. Plus, food safety nerds will love learning about an obscure bacterial pathogen and its super-deadly, heat-stable toxin (I sure did!).
In this week’s food fraud news I share a link to a new academic paper which is excellent - and I don’t say that about food fraud academic papers very often 😊. The paper introduces a new concept in food fraud… more on that next week.
Thanks for being here,
P.S. Please keep sharing this newsletter with your friends and colleagues. And to get all the features…
Cover image: Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash
🍏 Supplement for paying subscribers 🍏
Carbon Neutral Claims – Risky!
We all want our food to be sustainable, and consumers are increasingly willing to pay for ‘sustainable’ foods. As a result, more food companies are reducing their carbon emissions and making claims about carbon reduction on food packages.
Carbon neutral claims are on the rise, with carbon neutral eggs, carbon neutral dairy foods and even carbon neutral packaged water available. The problem is that carbon neutral claims are controversial, with some people arguing that the carbon offsetting used to achieve carbon neutrality would not fit with an average consumer’s understanding of a ‘carbon neutral’ food product.
First, some definitions.
A carbon neutral product is one that does not add any net new greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Carbon neutrality is achieved by reducing emissions and by offsetting emissions.
Carbon offsetting means absorbing an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide to that which is emitted. This is achieved by investing in carbon capture projects like reforestation. To ‘buy’ carbon offsets, a company can purchase carbon credits.
Carbon credits are tradeable units that each represent one ton of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses that have either been removed from the atmosphere or have been ‘avoided’. Projects that ‘avoid’ greenhouse gas emissions include renewable energy infrastructure creation, which ‘avoids’ fossil fuel electricity production, and energy efficiency initiatives that reduce the need for fossil-fuel-derived energy.
The problems with offsets
1) Offsets are only supposed to be used if emissions are ‘unavoidable’, which is somewhat subjective. For example, an airline that purchases carbon offsets because their use of aviation fuel is ‘unavoidable’ could instead choose to transport their passengers by sailing boat, thereby removing their need for aviation fuel.
2) Some offsets are ‘better’ than others. When we buy carbon credits to offset emissions, we are supposed to be contributing to a method that directly captures or reduces greenhouse gas emissions because of our investment. If that reduction would have happened anyway, then we aren’t really doing anything useful. For example, solar and wind energy generation projects are booming in some areas, and investment is abundant. Purchasing carbon credits for those projects does not actually increase the overall benefits gained in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, since those projects would have happened anyway. This is the notion of ‘additionality’.
Additionality is the word used to describe carbon credits that add to our overall emissions reduction activities, rather than just contributing finance to an activity that would have happened anyway.
3) Some offsets may not actually work. Offsets are supposed to actively cancel out emissions but carbon offset projects such as those that involve planting trees, can take years, or even decades to capture the promised amount of CO2. When trees die they ultimately release the captured carbon back into the atmosphere, making them a poor choice compared to leaving fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.
The risks posed by carbon neutral claims
More people are becoming aware of the problems associated with offsetting. And that poses a risk for food companies that use offsets to make carbon neutral claims. For example, Danone Waters America, owner of the Evian brand, is facing a lawsuit for using carbon offsets that, according to the complainant, do not currently reduce CO2 emissions.
Evian wasn’t making random, unsubstantiated, wild-west claims about their carbon neutrality. They took a careful and conservative approach. They chose the most universally accepted standard for carbon neutrality, PAS 2060, and they had their compliance independently verified and certified by the certification body Carbon Trust.
Carbon offsets are allowed under the PAS 2060 standard. And not just any old offset, but only those with additionality and from schemes that have been checked and approved by PAS 2060, and which have been independently verified and certified.
What Evian did for their carbon neutral project is all above board, at least as far as the PAS 2060 standard is concerned. But would consumers be okay with Evian’s use of these ‘high quality’ certified carbon credits? Climate advocates say they would not.
The plaintiffs in the case against Evian’s brand owner argue that consumers’ understanding of ‘carbon neutral’ would not include carbon offset schemes that do not produce actual carbon gains in the present. They argue that carbon offsets from tree plantations may be years away from any meaningful reduction in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and that this means the products are NOT currently carbon neutral.
In the USA companies are not supposed to use long-timeframe carbon offsets without disclosing this to the public. These rules are set by the Federal Trade Commission in a document known as the FTC Green Guide, which provides guidelines for making green marketing claims. They include a recommendation that companies disclose if they use offsets that won’t reduce emissions for two years or more.
What will the courts say? The Evian case has not started yet. But when courts in any country review claims of this nature they almost never rely on voluntary standards like PAS 2060. They usually seek to understand what an ‘average’ consumer would expect in relation to the claim. If this varies significantly from what the brand owner can actually demonstrate, then the court will find that the claim is misleading, and this will result in punishment for the brand owner.
Food companies that seek to make carbon neutral claims should invest in comprehensive consumer research that is specific to the actual food products about which the claims will be made. This is in addition to meeting the requirements of trusted, publicly available standards. The consumer research will help to refine messaging and could be used in a court of law to demonstrate that the claim(s) are not misleading to consumers. As consumers’ attitudes change over time, the research will need to be repeated every few years so that claims remain ‘calibrated’ with expectations.
The use of carbon offsets is a controversial element of any carbon neutral claim. Carbon offsets that do not clearly demonstrate ‘additionality’ and those with long lead times before carbon capture occurs are risky with respect to consumer expectations. Food companies might do well to avoid such offsets.
Foods marketed in the USA may be subject to the FTC Green Guide recommendations regarding offsets, and these may be in conflict with carbon offsets that are allowed under voluntary standards such as PAS 2060. Food companies should be aware of this discrepancy.
🍏 More sustainability 🍏
If you loved Issue #59’s post about how just 9 food crops feed humanity, then check out the book Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot. Also available in audiobook. Thank you to Evan of SFT QLD for the recommendation.
The Rotten Apple is a reader-supported publication. If you’re not already subscribed, do that now. We don’t use your email for anything else.
News and Resources
This week’s selection of curated food safety news includes fascinating stories, including…
tick-borne encephalitis from eating food 😲
spinach contaminated with 🍃 mandrake 🌿 leads to hospitalisations
Click the preview box below to access it.
Burkholderia cocovenenans – a food pathogen you might not have heard of
While there are hundreds of thousands of species of bacteria currently known to science, there are less than 250 bacterial species that cause foodborne illness. At least, those are the ones we know about.
I stumbled across a species that was new to me the other day, and I thought it might be new to you too. So, let me introduce to you Burkholderia cocovenenans, or more properly, Burkholderia gladioli pv. cocovenenans, [in this context pv means a pathovar, a pathogenic variant (“strain”) of the species], formerly known as Pseudomonas cocovenenans.
When B. cocovenenans grows in food it can produce a toxin that is both a food poisoning toxin and a respiratory toxin called bongkrekic acid. Coconut-based and corn-based products have been implicated in outbreaks in Indonesia, China and Mozambique.
This is pretty new. The epidemiological literature for food-borne outbreaks (cited here) dates from 2015 – 2019.
Eating food that has had B. cocovenenans growing in it, and that contains bongkrekic acid, will cause food poisoning. The symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, weakness, palpitations and death. Outbreaks have mortality rates in the region of 50%. That is, half the people who have eaten contaminated foods have died.
The bongkrekic acid toxin is odorless, tasteless and heat-stable (yeeouch!).
9 dead from homemade soup containing fermented corn (2020, China);
5 dead from eating commercially produced rice noodles, which were not fermented or noticeably spoiled (2018, China);
75 dead from fermented beverage made from corn flour (2015, Mozambique).
The main ‘parent’ species of B. cocovenenans, B. gladioli is found throughout the world and is considered to be environmentally ubiquitous. It has been isolated from corn, rice, onions, palm fruits, soil and water. The pathogenic strain B. cocovenenans is also ubiquitous in plants and soil and has been isolated from developed nations including the United States, although no food-borne outbreaks have occurred there.
High-risk foods are those that contain fatty acids that promote formation of the toxin, including coconut and corn. The toxin is produced at temperatures of 22 – 30 degrees Celsius and in foods of a neutral pH.
How to prevent B. cocovenenans and bongkrekic acid hazards in foods
There is not a lot of literature, but it appears that usual food hygiene and sanitary precautions will assist to prevent bongkrekic acid formation:
- Carefully controlling fermentations;
- Protecting food and ingredients from contact with soil, unclean water and unclean surfaces;
- Ensuring pH is low enough in fermentation processes;
- High-risk foods should be held and stored at proper temperatures and not left warm or at room temperature;
- Soaking high-risk foods like fungus should be done in the refrigerator.
For consumers, the Singapore Food Safety Agency has a food safety fact sheet to help people protect themselves from bongkrekic acid poisoning.
Fun facts (okay, not “fun” but interesting 😊)
Coconut tempe (Bongkrek), a fermented food made from coconut, is considered so risky that its production and sale is banned in Indonesia.
The toxin’s ability to inhibit important enzymes in mitochondria that are necessary for cell energy – and life - makes it a potentially powerful drug. It has antibiotic properties and has been studied for its ability to prevent cell death (apoptosis).
🍏🍏🍏 For more pathogens that you might not have heard of, see Issue 17 🍏🍏🍏
What you missed in last week’s email
· Hemp-based Foods; Hot or Not?
· Cargo Theft: A Food Safety and Food Fraud Problem
· Baking with Wool (Just for Fun)
· Food fraud news, including how glycerine fraud might have caused deaths
Below for paying subscribers: Food fraud news, incident reports, and emerging issues, plus an 🎧 awesome audio version 🎧 (so you can catch up while on the go)
📌 Food Fraud News 📌
Highly toxic and illegal weight loss chemicals were seized by authorities. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland handled 171 food fraud investigations in 2021, including operations that involved the illegal slaughter of horses, illegal online food businesses on Facebook and Instagram, other foods of animal origin, seafood and food supplements. Capsules containing 51 2,4- Dinitrophenol (DNP),
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial