Food safety and reputation

By Eugenio Gisbert, communications consultant in the agri-food sector.

Originally published in El Economista


Identifying fraud and strengthening traceability of raw materials and ingredients in processed foodstuffs is one of the food industry’s outstanding issues. Food safety failures, sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional, can have serious effects on the reputation of companies and brands.

Even if it is an accidental problem, due to production line failures or human error, the result is the same and the customer can claim, whether end consumer or manufacturer, if the problem has to do with raw materials.

Among the most common cases of food fraud are mislabeling and substitution of lower-quality and cheaper ingredients. In both cases there is a clear intention to make a greater financial profit.

On the other hand, adulterations with ingredients that do not correspond to the usual composition of the product can occur due to deliberate or accidental contamination; lack of capacity of the producing company to identify raw materials; or inefficient control of the supply chain.

Some food categories are much more susceptible to fraud than others. Some experts mention olive oil, spices, coffee, honey, milk, fruit juices, wine, meat and organic products among the most vulnerable foodstuffs.

In many cases, these practices are difficult to detect as they can occur at any stage of the supply chain, i.e. the manufacturer of the final product is not always responsible, as the fraud may have occurred in the supply of raw materials or additives.

Why, despite controls, do we still encounter food safety problems that often result in product recalls and even lawsuits, and, in the worst case, health risks for consumers?

This can lead to serious economic and reputational costs for food companies, which is why they are – or should be – the main stakeholders in scrupulously ensuring quality controls throughout the supply chain

Advanced technology within the reach of any company

80% of the food we consume is produced by small and medium-sized companies and many of them still have little access to technology. Most of these companies do not have digitised quality control systems, as this would require large investments.

However, efficient and cost-effective alternatives to digitise and make quality control easier along the supply chain are beginning to emerge on the market and are within everyone’s reach.

Near infrared (NIR) technology makes it possible to understand the physico-chemical properties of food quickly and easily. In a laboratory of a processed food company, where powdered ingredients from different origins are received every day, it is difficult to perform all types of analysis required for each sample, both in terms of instrumentation and technical capacity.

Near infrared offers the possibility to obtain a quick and simple analysis, avoiding human error; it can be applied to any sample to identify its composition and conformity with previous samples to ensure the homogeneity and quality of the final product.

In Spain we are pioneers in the use of NIR-based tools that have developed very simple quality control techniques accessible to any agri-food company.

This is the case of Chemometric Brain, a company from Murcia that operates all over the world. This company has developed a NIR-based software that is very easy to use and allows the identification of the components of any ingredient or foodstuff in powder, liquid, solid or gel form in just a few seconds. It detects that its composition has not undergone variations and corresponds to the parameters of the product.

This is the case of Chemometric Brain, a company from Murcia that operates all over the world. This company has developed a NIR-based software that is very easy to use and allows the identification of the components of any ingredient or foodstuff in powder, liquid, solid or gel form in just a few seconds. It detects that its composition has not undergone variations and corresponds to the parameters of the product.

Can you imagine having a device no bigger than a printer in your company that, in just a few seconds, analyses all kinds of samples, identifies them and compares them consistently with other samples previously received or used in production? This simplifies and speeds up the identification of raw materials; makes it easier to detect possible changes in supplier supplies; ensures the exact composition of a mixture; and better determines the expected shelf life of the product.

It works much like a scanner. The product is “scanned” using near-infrared radiation; the result of the analysis is loaded into the device and leaves a “fingerprint” of that product, which is compared with previously defined libraries for that specific product from previous analyses.

The main difference between the NIR solutions already available on the market and the development of this Spanish company is that this is the only software in the cloud, which allows any food company to store all the NIR results from multiple devices and multiple manufacturers in a single place.

And, above all, what makes the difference is the vocation to democratise the use of NIR technology for quality control through simpler techniques, which can be carried out in any food company by any technician with minimal training, without need for external laboratories or investing in own laboratories, ensuring control from raw materials to the final product.

In my career as a communications consultant in the agri-food sector, I have witnessed serious reputational crises due to problems with the origin or labelling of essential products in the diet, such as olive oil or milk. If NIR technology becomes widespread and reaches the entire food industry, such crises will be something from the past. It is the revolution we need to ensure food safety and end with fraud.

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