New EU Limits on Antioxidants in Tuna to Combat Food Fraud (and Confuse Journalists)

The act of selling and labeling canned tuna as fresh tuna is clearly illegal, but after the new EU regulation, it is now also a violation to add three times the necessary antioxidants. The related news reports demonstrate the massive confusion regarding food fraud.

This blog post will address three issues, including that (1) the underlying fraud act is often not illegal, (2) there can be very simple food laws that vastly reduce the fraud opportunity, and (3) there is still often a lot of confusion about food fraud incidents.

A Food Fraud incident resulting from a legal activity (or not explicitly illegal)

Earlier this month, the European Union (EU) set maximum levels of three antioxidant chemicals legitimately used on tuna. Using the antioxidants of ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, and calcium ascorbate (E 302) is a part of good manufacturing practices to help processing, food quality, and food safety (e.g., around 300 mg per kilogram of tuna).

These antioxidants are legal and helpful when they are “used in accordance with good manufacturing practice.” The EU regulation states: “On the basis of the information provided by the industry to the Authority in view of the re-evaluation of the safety of the food additives, a maximum level of 300 mg/kg is considered appropriate. This level is the highest use level reported by the industry, as listed in the Authority’s scientific opinion.”

Selling and labeling “canned tuna” [or, more broadly, packaged product that might be a whole fillet in a bag] as “fresh tuna” is illegal under food and/or commercial trade laws. There were cases where much higher levels (900 mg per kilogram of tuna) were found to support food fraud activities of passing off canned tuna as fresh tuna. Basically, the antioxidant overloading led canned tuna to be unpackaged and sold as fresh tuna. The action of adding three times the antioxidants may have been considered unethical or possibly a violation of a commercial specification, but it was not explicitly illegal.

To note, the regulatory update also states a food safety hazard: “The use of the food additives in tuna for canning in high amounts to artificially restore the color of fresh tuna flesh gives an opportunity to deceptively market that tuna for canning as fresh tuna, selling it at a higher price, misleading the consumers about the product and exposing them to the risk of histamine poisoning [that occurs for some humans from the higher amounts of those chemicals].”

The EU Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 to Limit Levels of Three Antioxidants

The European Union amendment to the regulation is surprisingly short and very simple. The four-page statement lays out the foundational regulations, the legitimate use of the chemicals, the concerns for fraud and food safety, the rationale for the new maximum levels, and the statement of the maximum levels.

News Reporter Confusion about the Food Fraud Problem

Several top food journalists covered the EU regulation very clearly. Being an active member of the food safety industry, they have a keen understanding of the scientific and regulatory details. For example, I first read about the regulation in the Food Safety News article by Joe Whitworth on October 21, 2022.

But when gathering more information, many other articles confused the issues. I won’t name the specific articles, but a few of the fundamental points of confusion were:

  • The investigators were using DNA testing methods (detecting the building block of animals or plants) to detect a chemical problem (a single specific substance.) Yes, they both can be authenticity tests, but they are completely different in what they test and how they detect fraud. So, DNA tests have nothing to do with this tuna antioxidant issue.
  • They had a misunderstanding about DNA testing in general and specifically for authenticating the cooked product. A DNA test can authenticate products that have DNA. Usually, those tests are on raw food products because DNA is often denatured (destroyed) when the product is cooked. So, DNA has nothing to do with this tuna antioxidant issue.
  • They were applying other unrelated reports or articles under a singular concept of food fraud. There was confusion about passing off canned tuna as fresh tuna versus species swapping of non-tuna as tuna. So, the passing of one species as another has nothing to do with this tuna antioxidant issue.
  • The control of the additives from 900 mg down to 300 mg – yes, a 300% reduction – has no relative application to reducing the amount of fraudulent filler in the product. The law refers to 300mg per kilogram. To provide a real-world example, 300mg in a one-kilogram sample is comparable to one single penny out of about 3,300 pennies (see figure). By weight or volume, 300 and 900 mg are minuscule in the overall sample. From one of our articles, food fraud becomes economically viable at between 1 and 10 percent (10,000 to 100,000 mg). AND a filler in seafood would not be this type of antioxidant chemical. So, the antioxidants as a fraudulent filler have nothing to do with this tuna antioxidant issue.

A takeaway point from this review of investigator confusion is a call to action for more research and the development of a food fraud suspicious activity report method (FFSAR) – see the next section.

The Food Fraud Suspicious Activity Report Method (FFSAR) – Request for Comment

Coincidentally, our research on the development of the FFSAR (pronounced ef-ef-sar) is completed and is in the “review and resubmit” stage of publication. Also, this is a key concept in the INTERPOL/ Europol Operation OPSON training we will be releasing next month.

Participate by Reviewing and Commenting on the Draft


Takeaway points:

  • It is comforting to see that regulators are adopting laws and regulations that simply and directly address the food fraud vulnerabilities (in this case, the action of overloading tuna with antioxidants).
  • If you are a food company that buys or sells tuna, it would be wise to occasionally confirm that your antioxidant levels are within the maximum allowable levels – and let your suppliers know that you expect compliance and you will be checking.
  • When you read about a food fraud incident, it is essential to gather all the information and use a standardized incident report method which could include the Food Fraud Suspicious Activity Report Method (FFSAR).
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