We all remember the horsemeat scandal of 2013 when horsemeat instead of beef was found in lasagne, meat sauce, and many other processed food products. It is just one of many examples of mislabelled food. The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has now created a vital tool in the fight against fake food: the newly founded National Reference Centre for Authentic Food at the Max Rubner-Institut.
The European Union (EU) estimates the annual damage caused by food fraud – the fraudulent adulteration of food and deliberate deception for the purpose of gaining a financial advantage – at no less than 30 billion euros; comparable to the volume of the illegal heroin market. Whether it is horsemeat instead of beef, inferior oil instead of extra virgin olive oil, or eggs from barn chickens instead of free-range chickens: food fraud is a criminal offence, regardless whether such adulteration poses a health risk to consumers or not.
In addition to the animal or plant species and production method, the authenticity of a food product (from late Latin authenticus, Greek Authentikós, meaning “in accordance with facts”, “credible” or “genuine”) can also be defined by its geographic origin and other valuable components: Is the pan-fried fish I ordered at the restaurant really sole and not just cheap pangasius; is this feta cheese really made from sheep’s milk and not cow’s milk; was this organic apple really grown without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides; was my prosecco imported from the region in Italy that is stated on the label; and is an oil really rich in omega-3 fatty acids as claimed?
Implementation of the EU Directive
By creating the National Reference Centre for Authentic Foods (NRZ-Authent) at the Max Rubner-Institut, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) is establishing a “Reference Centre for the Authenticity and Integrity of the Food Chain” at national level, as stipulated in the EU Controls Regulation (EU Regulation 2017/625), which will significantly reinforce Germany’s defences against food adulteration. NRZ-Authent primarily supports food monitoring authorities and local inspection offices in Germany. In order to stop food adulteration across national borders, however, additional European and international cooperation is essential.
Analytics - an important building block in the fight against food fraud
In order to expose food crimes and protect consumers from being misled, it is important to be able to verify the claims on the label analytically. This requires a range of analytical procedures, including reliable reference databases for analytical comparison (= comparing the analytical result of a given sample with an authentic reference), as well as scientific experts. The aim is to anticipate potential problem areas along the entire food chain, detect them with the help of a comprehensive analytical toolbox and thus make a valuable contribution to detecting fraudulent and criminal activities.
Structure and mission
The new centre will coordinate research done by MRI and other pertinent research institutions, act as a national interface to connect German knowledge with the planned European Reference Centre and other institutions as well as advising all stakeholders.
NRZ-Authent’s function can be divided into three major areas:
1. Network of experts:
- pooling and provision of specialist knowledge
- regular exchange and training
- interface between the German expert network and organisations and activities at European and international level
- development and provision of a national database with analytical results of authentic reference samples
= Germany-wide uniform comparison and assessment of food samples
- production and supply of spiked foods
= for calibrating analytical methods
- interface with existing collections of authentic food reference materials at national level (e.g. Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing - BAM) and European level (e.g. European Commission Joint Research Centre - JRC)
3. Analytical competence:
- internal and inter-organisational cooperation/support in the development, validation, standardisation and selection of analytical methods to verify food authenticity with regard to
- geographic origin
- method of production
- valuable components
- animal/plant species and varieties
- overarching interface for and coordination of all ongoing research and development activities within MRI in the above-mentioned areas of food authenticity
Networking at national and international level
At national level, NRZ-Authent is closely connected to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. There is also a network of monitoring bodies and research institutions in the various federal states, such as universities or the ministries responsible for food monitoring. In the long term, the plan is to network at international level by involvement in international projects, as well. In this context, NRZ-Authent also benefits from existing networks amongst scientists from the various institutes within the Max Rubner-Institut.