At the beginning of September, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) finally published the long-awaited Elliott Review, a study, led by Professor Chris Elliott, director of the global institute for food security at Queen’s University Belfast, which looks at the ongoing issues of food crime both in the UK and globally.
The Review, which was triggered initially by the widely publicised horsemeat scandal in January 2013, calls for a ’systems approach’ based on eight pillars of food integrity, making it clear that no single element can stand alone.
Within the Review, Elliott points towards better focus on intelligence gathering and information sharing, calling on the UK government to work with industry to help it establish its own ’safe haven’ to collect, collate, analyse and disseminate information and intelligence.
“A food manufacturer would be foolish not to undertake any food testing whatsoever
Campden BRI’s Julian South
Ultimately, the report sets out plans for the development of a national food crime prevention framework with a clear objective of tackling food fraud in a robust and thorough manner being top of the agenda.
In light of this, what can the UK food analysis market, and the wider food and beverage industry, do to ensure it successfully implements Elliott’s food fraud strategy alongside its own methodologies?
For many, the UK food testing market prides itself on maintaining a constant stream of relevant information that helps alert testing facilities and food manufacturers to any, and all, changes in legislation, regulation or technology.
For Julian South, head of department for chemistry and biochemistry at food testing firm Campden BRI, information sources that UK companies rely on are some of the best in the world.
“There are a lot of good information sources available in the UK. It’s almost certain you will receive the same information twice when there are updates,” South says.
The reality of this situation, however, is that good sources of information alone do not lead to more robust food authenticity measures being adhered to.
“If you consider the Food Safety Act, there is no compulsory testing of food in the UK but there is a mandatory requirement for all food to comply with the requirements of that Act,” South says.
“Ultimately, a food manufacturer would be foolish not to undertake any food testing whatsoever.”
Fortunately, there are a number of food testing analysis techniques a company can utilise to protect itself, and its customers, against food fraud.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing involves the amplification and copying of small segments of DNA necessary for genetic and molecular analysis.
PCR is most commonly used in meat speciation testing, for example. But unfortunately, the cost of PCR testing can often lead companies to seek a more affordable solution.
“Companies are [therefore] likely to use enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) testing - which is often used to test for meat species or allergens, for example - because it is quick, cheap and easy to use, and you don’t need a specialised laboratory for it if you have the kit yourself,” South says.
If, however, more specialised testing results are required, both PCR and ELISA can be used simultaneously.
Dionisis Theodosis, who is head of food chemistry at Exova’s UK food testing business, says that it is important to have the capability of both PCR and ELISA so a contract laboratory or food manufacturer can cover instances when PCR won’t be suitable for the matrix tested due to inability to extract DNA from the sample.
“[However], we [commonly] use ELISA methods to look for specific allergens within a sample and we use PCR for meat speciation testing - covering a range of species such as beef, horse, lamb and chicken - for food adulteration purposes,” he says.
“I am quite optimistic about chemical fingerprinting but it is too early to say what the implications will be
Exova’s head of chemistry Dionisis Theodosis
Likewise, there has also been considerable advance in the use of mass spectrometry within the food analysis sector in recent years.
“We are investing every year or every couple of years in LCMS/ MS triple quadruple mass spectrometry equipment, because every time a new instrument is introduced, the software and sensitivity is improved,” South says.
For South, LCMS/ MS testing is the frontrunner in terms of food analysis accuracy and specificity.
“It really is leading the way in terms of analytical determinations in food,” he says.
However, there a new technologies on the horizon that, if widely implicated, could drastically strengthen the industry’s ability to both detect and eliminate food fraud in the vast majority of cases.
“There is a lot of talk that chemical fingerprinting is going to become a routine form of analysis for contract labs in the near future but the whole concept is still a little way off in terms of the wider food industry,” South says.
To perform chemical fingerprinting, researchers utilise two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC-GC), coupled with time-of-flight mass spectrometry in order to isolate individual components within a sample so that they can understand each part of its chemical configuration, and compare it to a variety of pure and adulterated samples.
“Instead of specific protein targeting we are looking at the entire make up of a food and, until recently, that has been the sole domain of the research lab, but it is gradually creeping in to food analysis,” South says.
Likewise, Theodosis says that chemical fingerprinting has a lot of potential and the technology will most likely advance in the coming years.
“I am optimistic about chemical fingerprinting but it is too early to say what the implications will be,” he says.
Regardless of which technology you employ, however, more robust and more accurate food testing, aligned with a consistant stream off well-disseminated, accurate information, should help restore much of the consumer confidence that was lost following the horsemeat scandal.
“Industry, government and enforcement agencies should, as a precautionary principle, always put the needs of consumers above all other considerations, and this means giving food safety and food crime prevention - i.e. the deterrence of dishonest behaviour - absolute priority over other objectives,” Elliott says.