Local food could be falsely advertised

May 12, 2006

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In the past, discerning shoppers purchasing "Oregon" strawberries from their grocers' shelves might have ended up with a product that came all the way from Mexico or Central America. And they might have never been made aware of the discrepancy.

Now, new testing methods developed by Oregon State University researchers will allow the food industry to determine whether those fresh "Oregon" strawberries came from fields in McMinnville, Burns or the Gulf of Mexico.

Fresh produce, coffee and wine are just some of the food products that are often mislabeled – either unintentionally or on purpose – and until recently there was not a sure-fire way to determine the true geographic origins of commodities.

By looking at stable isotopes and the availability of trace elements in different foods, like that luscious Oregon strawberry, and comparing the results to a database, the researchers can pinpoint within a matter of miles where the berry came from. Their latest body of work on the subject will be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Knowing the origin of food commodities is important because of differences in regions' associated value, handling procedures, threats from bioterrorism and the complexities of international and state-to-state trade, said Kim Anderson, an environmental and molecular chemist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. Sometimes, she added, it's also nice to know what you're really eating.

"We label food to protect the authenticity of the product," said Anderson. "But if the label is inaccurate, everyone suffers. This science allows us to protect growers' expertise, the value added to their crops, the economy and our health."

Many countries that the United States regularly imports from practice different methods of agriculture than those that are standard in the states. The crops that come across U.S. borders are labeled so that consumers know what they're getting into, said Anderson.

But in May of 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that a major strawberry production company in Mexico had labeled their product under the "Fresh Delight" name, and sold them under false pretenses. The company was forced to recall almost 13,000 pounds of strawberries that had been distributed to four states, because the fruit was contaminated with salmonella.

Besides risking consumer's health, false geographic labeling can also wreak havoc on the commodity's market, Anderson said.

"Think about Kona coffee," said Anderson. "It sells at premium price because of where it was grown and the practices that have gone into it. About 20 million pounds of Kona coffee are sold annually, but only 2 million pounds are actually produced. Somewhere, 18 million pounds of coffee are being labeled as something it's not. When you can buy Columbian coffee for $1 a pound then turn around and sell it under a different label for $35 a pound, someone is going to take advantage of that."

In her latest study on differentiating geographic food origins, Anderson worked with Angela Perez and Brian W. Smith from the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at OSU to test different varieties of strawberries, blueberries and pears to determine if they could accurately tell where they were grown. She has also worked with pistachios and coffee.

"We're just cracking the nut on varietals, but so far there is little discrepancy between varietals," Anderson said. "The key, though, is having a broad enough sample size to be able to make comparisons. If we were comparing berries from Oregon, Washington and Mexico, we could tell you which berries weren't from Oregon, but unless we had samples from the other region we would not be able to pinpoint where they were from."

Europe is already moving forward to put geographic origin databases in place, but the European systems are predominantly based on analysis of vitamins or other organic molecules that may change as time passes. Anderson's reliance on trace elements and isotopes makes harvest time of fruit irrelevant. She said she hopes new means for food origin analysis will help keep citizens safer.

"If you strip off all your clothes, there's likely a label somewhere on every piece saying where it was made, but you probably have no idea where the food you are about to put in your mouth came from," said Anderson. "Are we really more concerned with what we put on our bodies than with what we put in them?"

Author: Aimee Lyn Brown
Source: Kim A. Anderson