Paradigm shift: targeted screening is out, untargeted screening is the new black

Since early 2021, we have stopped seeing the numerous recalls triggered by the presence of ethylene oxide (EO) in ingredients and food products.

Quite “surprisingly”, a lot of certified organic food products were implicated in these recalls, and so-called locally-made foods have turned out to contain very non-local ingredients.

But is it really so surprising? EO as a food contaminant resulting from bad agricultural practices is not unheard of, but it wasn’t per se part of the surveillance programs of many food business operators because they believed that good agricultural practices were being followed.

Now that EO testing has been mandated after last September’s many recalls of products containing sesame seeds produced in India, the scale of the contamination appears wider than first suspected, and it shows how things should never be taken for granted.

Delegation without supervision can never be successful in the long run. Certification does help but it is not enough, and it never will be.

Similarly, fipronil made the news in 2017, and has since been implicated several times in various food recalls. Wasn’t it an issue before 2017? It certainly was but, again, it was not on the radar until the fipronil egg scandal erupted. The 2008 melamine crisis in China is another well-known example. Adulteration of milk with melamine to falsify the results of FTIR screening started when infrared milk composition screening provided cheaper and faster results than reference standards like the Kjeldahl method could provide. When it comes to food adulteration, whether it is food fraud or food safety issues (or both), the book of concerning analyte methods can quickly turn into a long encyclopaedia. Due to economic and capability constraints, it is not possible to analyse for the entire set. This is where untargeted screening shows superiority to targeted screen- ing. While you only find what you are looking for, what if you could search for everything possibly present?

Monitoring programs are flawed by design because the analytes are known from the start. Fraudsters can simply use contaminants that are not tested for. The field of microbiology is switching from routine culture-based techniques to molecular ones, like next-generation sequencing (NGS), to provide the option to see more than meets the eye (on the agar Petri dish, that is).

There is more to find than we can im- agine, so it is time to use the approach that reveals all the little secrets (both the good and the bad) within the food chain. Targeted testing does not make food safer. It simply confirms whether a specific substance is present.

Untargeted screening can reveal con- cerning situations one was not aware of, providing knowledge to inform curative or preventive actions. While it may also reveal discomfiting truths, that is always better than another crisis. The food industry needs to learn from melamine, from fipronil, from EO, and from the next one(s).

The analytical solutions exist. Imple- mentation, unfortunately, still lags behind.


This article represents the opinions of the author, and does not reflect those of any organizations he represents.

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