Food and beverage safety has become one of the big buzzwords in Asia-Pacific over the last two years. Trends such as globalisation, rapid urbanisation and environmental transformation continue to have long-term implications on the global food supply chain, increasing safety and quality concerns.
The beverage industry, specifically, though not as high-profile as its food counterpart, has also had its fair share of safety issues and concerns. Examples of these are the plasticiser scandal in Taiwan in 2011, where various food and drink items were found to contain diethylhexyl-phthalate (DEHP) a plastic chemical agent that affects hormonal balance and has been linked to developmental problems in children; and the 2008 melamine scandal originating in China, where milk and infant formula along with other food materials and components were adulterated with melamine.
Nonetheless, food additives are mostly harmless, and have long been used on an industrial scale for increasing food quality and safety. Chemical additives such as artificial sweeteners and colourings have also been increasingly used in beverages as they are diabetic-friendly and are not a significant source of calories, which appeals to the health-conscious.
However, they come with a variety of side-effects when added in larger than recommended amounts, ranging in severity from laxative effects to carcinogenic, and as such, there are fairly tight controls on their addition during processing. As for contaminants, they are generally impurities that adversely affect the overall quality of the product, whether in taste or in safety for human consumption.
The following article highlights several common beverages that are most often consumed, several additives or contaminants they may contain or have contained in the past, and safety issues that have arisen to date. Addressed will also be how mass spectrometry, a holistic testing method that is among the most sensitive, fast and accurate methods available, can help in ensuring safety in the processing of these beverages.
Dairy products are among the most consumed foods globally, and also a category that presents a challenge to food and beverage safety testing. With their main consumers—infants and young children—being a vulnerable demographic, there is pressure on the industry to maintain the safety standards of infant formulation and other milk-based products. As a whole, milk is susceptible to safety issues due to these potential threats:
As an animal product, milk is prone to containing antibiotics or veterinary drug residues that are administered to keep commercial livestock healthy and free from diseases. However, exposure to excessive antibiotics can result in antibiotic resistance in humans, giving rise to potential superbugs.
The common industry practice has been to carry out antibiotic sample testing for milk before it undergoes further processing at the plant, and discarding milk that fails the tests. In Asia, there are various legislations and animal husbandry practices, but high drug residue levels continue to be an issue.
Raw milk is a growth medium for both pathogenic and non-pathogenic microorganisms. Milk-borne diseases resulting from these pathogens can be greatly reduced through pasteurisation coupled with a comprehensive food safety program. However, post-pasteurisation contamination is still possible if dairy production plants are unable to maintain an ultra-clean environment for milk processing.
Adulteration driven by profi t has been culpable for many food safety cases to date. In recent years, the dairy industry has seen this number on the rise.
In some cases, a cheap, inferior nitrogenous ingredient is used to manufacture or process dairy products to fraudulently enhance its apparent protein content, colour or flavour of a dairy product or to simply prolong its lifespan.
An example of this is the recent 1080 scare in baby formula in New Zealand, or the 2008 melamine scare in milk formula in China, the latter of which resulted in approximately 54,000 infants hospitalised from renal injury.
Soft drinks such as soda and other carbonated drinks are extremely popular amongst people of all ages. Recently, they have been undergoing a sort of transformation as consumers become more educated and health-conscious, leading to increased use of sugar alternatives such as aspartame and stevia in place of sugar.
These sugar alternatives and natural sweeteners are enjoying a surge in popularity due to their calorie-free and diabetic-friendly nature. Their long-term effects, however, are not yet known because of their recent introduction. They are therefore evaluated for safety before being permitted in beverages, and even then are limited to a small range of products. For example, artificial sweeteners are not generally allowed to be in children’s products and some directives require labels to state that the food in question contains sweeteners.
In recent years, increasing additives are coming under scrutiny when toxicity implications are established in the laboratories. An example of this is caramel colouring, 4-Methylimidazole (4-MEI), which is used as a common colour agent in colas and dark beers. This heterocyclic organic compound is currently classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ with a safety consumption limit of 29 micrograms per day. In response to this, large beverage producers have ordered their suppliers to reduce the levels of 4-MEI added during the manufacturing process to meet health guidelines.
Tea is the second most popular drink in the world owing to its deep cultural roots. This is particularly so in Asia, where the tea market in China alone is worth nearly US$10 billion. Hence, tests for pest-control agrochemicals which are applied to maximise yield are compulsory in tea leaves assessment to protect consumers’ safety. Gaps in quality control can spiral down into major scandals like the one in 2011, when an extensive list of affected products was pulled from shelves, as it was discovered that tea from a popular brand contained a carcinogenic pesticide at levels higher than stipulated safety limits.
In a recent Taiwanese scandal, a supplier re-labelled non-edible jasmine tea leaves intended only for its aromatic fragrance, to ‘edible’ before selling them to a local café. The contaminated tea was found to contain at least 30 percent more trizophos than the legally-permitted level. The eventual lawsuit implicated all involved parties, resulting in collateral reputation damage.
Fruit And Vegetable Juices
More and more fruit and vegetable juices are finding their way onto supermarket shelves, especially in developing countries as one of the major contributors of the global beverage industry. Juices on the shelves are not necessarily made of 100 percent juice, and can vary greatly in actual fruit extracts. Nonetheless, the finished products are frequently assessed for potential pesticide residues to ensure they do not exceed the regulatory-defined limit.
Such due diligence is important to safeguard consumers’ safety, especially since fruit juices are perceived as ‘healthy’, coupled with growing awareness and preference by consumers for them. Beverage testing for fruit and vegetable juices is a crucial preventive measure against contamination, such as that by Carbendazim, a broad-spectrum fungicide of orange juices originating from Brazil oranges, which occurred in 2013.
High Performance Liquid Chromatography—Mass Spectrometry
As safety issues such as those reflected in this article become more prevalent, Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) presents a reliable analytical technique that can provide conclusive and accurate results for a diverse range of natural-occurring and synthetic contaminants.
LC-MS is deemed as a gold standard for analytical testing of food and beverages because of its unparalleled sensitivity, specificity and ability to quantitate a few hundred target compounds in a single analysis. The last two years has seen the gradual adoption of accurate mass MS systems (high resolution MS) for surveillance screening of unknown compounds. This pre-emptive approach allows unpredictable toxic substances outside the routine list to be identified.
The overarching merits of MS systems for food testing boil down to their capabilities to find targeted chemical contaminants with very high specificity, the power to perform routine monitoring of high-risk, known chemical contaminants, and the added ability to survey food samples for unknown chemical compounds, including environmental contaminants, adulterants (e.g. melamine, DCD, 1080), chemical by-products (e.g. whey), or fungal metabolites.
Regulatory enforcement agencies at the battle frontline against food safety crises are constantly pushing their limits to resolve challenges faced in both the export and import food industry. Through cooperative efforts between equipment manufacturers such as SCIEX, regulatory bodies and the food industry, reliable and accurate laboratory-based methods for detecting abnormalities have been unveiled, as new discoveries are made and technology in this area improves.
In conclusion, safety, and the need to have the most efficient methods available for testing, as well as to strive for excellence in this regard, is just as important in beverages as in food processing, if not more.
Pressure is mounting on the beverage industry to minimise, if not eliminate, its reliance on artificial flavours and colourings due to consumers’ recognition of the potential dangers they present, not to mention the demands for ‘natural’ and ‘less-processed’ products. At the same time, technology is advancing, making testing faster, more accurate and more sensitive, which will be a boon for consumers and testers alike, as food and beverage safety issues become a greater concern.