|NOW Foods staff checks out samples in the lab. Source:NOW Foods.
NOW Foods (Bloomingdale, IL) wanted to attack the issue of adulterated food with unparalleled vigor. The company, which has built a reputation for producing high-quality nutrition supplements for health-conscious customers since 1962, needed to mitigate risk for the retailers who sell their products and the consumers who trust the brand.
“For our industry, it seemed the mindset was that everyone knew adulteration was a problem, but the hope was that it would just never happen to them,” says Katrina Emmel, an analytical scientist at NOW Foods. “But we wanted to take a leadership role on this issue. We wanted to know for a fact that this wouldn’t happen to us.”
Adulterated foods and supplements have caused numerous recalls, both voluntary and mandated by regulators. For example, more than 300,000 people consumed melamine-laced milk and infant formula in 2008. In 2011, a St. Louis Rams linebacker won a lawsuit against a sports supplement-maker when he tested positive for a steroid after using one of its products. In Taiwan, a plasticizing chemical linked to fertility and liver dysfunction was identified in an ingredient used to make jellies, sports drinks and fruit juices in 2011.
“Recalls make everyone in the industry look like bad players,” says Andrea Champagne, a NOW Foods analytical scientist. “It has a severe psychological impact on the customers. People begin to think every similar product is unsafe.”
While the FDA orders that adulterated products be removed from the market, it also directs manufacturers to fix the problem, which is potentially the industry’s biggest threat. Addressing the threat means creating a cost-effective solution—a test that can be repeated on a large scale and interpreted by in-house personnel without advanced science degrees.
Michael Lelah, NOW Foods technical director, was challenged to find a solution. “To us, success was to allow not one single spiked ingredient to make its way through our facility—and certainly not to a customer.” The answer was an in-house protocol, but the real question was how to create it—and with what.
The processor took its first step by assessing what it already had. A key part of the company’s progress was relying on instrumentation and software created by PerkinElmer (PE), a provider of instrumentation focused on the health and safety of people and the environment.
Among its lab instrumentation, NOW Foods implemented and now operates the PerkinElmer Spectrum Two FT-IR spectrometer. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) collects data on solids, liquids or gases, obtaining an IR spectrum that can be qualitatively analyzed. FT-IR technology has been applied successfully in the past for analytical testing of substances such as polluted soil or biodiesel blends. However, NOW Foods sought to apply this instrumentation to an innovative method of material qualification.
Companion software to PE’s FT-IR instrumentation allowed the processor to adapt the system to check food ingredients. The software, AssureID, compares similarities and differences in the spectral data and delivers an easy-to-read printout, an assessment of whether a sample passed or failed the test.
A test failure indicates a target ingredient’s spectral signature failed to match critical characteristics, indicating the presence of a foreign material—an adulterated material. Since substances create unique wavelength patterns, the FT-IR instrument and software generates what amounts to a molecular fingerprint. The system lets a layman get accurate results by comparing a test sample against authentic samples that are known to be free of contamination.
Alternative testing methods could have yielded the results NOW Foods required. But at a cost of nearly $1,000 for each test and a turnaround time of several days by expensive third-party chemists, the processor needed a more efficient solution. With the PE instrumentation and companion software, NOW Foods found it could achieve answers in five minutes instead of five days, a valuable, reliable and speedy solution for a manufacturer that makes products based on a just-in-time delivery model.
With PE’s hardware and software, testing is easy. The processor’s technicians place a sample in powder or pulverized form onto a metal plate. The instrument then runs the test in less time than it takes to toast a bagel. Using AssureID software, the test detects the differences between the spectra of raw ingredients and adulterated materials with greater accuracy than some more expensive testing methods.
“We honestly couldn’t have overcome this challenge without PerkinElmer technology,” says Emmel. “The combination of AssureID and the Spectrum instrument allowed us to do this testing and analysis in a new and incredibly automated way.”
“The one thing that allows a relatively non-qualified technician to do this is the AssureID software platform,” says Lelah. “That’s what makes the technology truly turnkey.”
NOW Foods’ testing solution encompasses all potential adulterants, allowing the processor to stay ahead of fraudulent suppliers that aggressively formulate new ways of spiking ingredient lots. “The players who are adulterating these products are changing characteristics outside the core structure,” says Lelah. “They’re not changing the core structure because that is what makes a certain material, like a steroid, work. What this means is that the ability to manipulate the chemistry of a substance does not impact our ability to detect it. We’ll always be ahead of their shell game.”