The long-awaited Elliott Review was published last week, but how will the promise of better food authenticity be achieved?
’Scandal’ has been the buzzword on the lips of almost every commentator ever since horsemeat was discovered in a Tesco beef burger in January last year.
Its effect instigated the commissioning of a review, led by Professor Chris Elliott, director of the global institute for food security at Queen’s University Belfast, into food fraud and food adulteration.
An interim report published in December of last year pointed the finger both at criminal activity and a severe breakdown in the control of the UK food and beverage supply chain.
“The appropriate bodies must now hit the ground running (or should that be galloping?)
Perhaps most striking, at least initially, is the seeming delay with which the full Review was published.
There were grumblings of scandal in July and August that the Review had been purposely delayed because the findings were so damning that the government had to prepare for damage control.
Though the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) denied any such block, the title page of the Review is emblazoned with ’July 2014’ - a casualty of the cabinet reshuffle, or an unfortunate oversight, perhaps?
Aside from points that could be discussed until the cows come home, however, are eight recommendations revealed within the Elliott Review which together form the basis of a national food crime prevention framework.
Elliott outlines a need for ’clear leadership’ in the fight against food fraud, proposing the creation of a Food Crime Unit hosted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as part of an ’ongoing effort’ to tackle food adulteration.
Furthermore, Elliott suggests the government should standardise food authenticity testing via the development of ’Centres of Excellence’ with interested parties, and ’facilitate the development of guidance on surveillance programmes to inform national sampling programmes’.
“The processes and methodologies used to ensure the integrity and assurance of food should be undertaken according to recognised standards and agreed performance criteria. An efficient scientific service must review and adapt its testing methodologies regularly to keep up to date with possible frauds and detection techniques,” Elliott said.
To ensure food crime is tackled at the earliest possible stage, Elliott has also called for a more robust auditing process.
“Audits of food supplies by producers, storage facilities, processors and retailers are undertaken both routinely and randomly,” Elliott said.
DEFRA’s Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) provided one of the most hard-hitting messages, announcing to the food industry that in light of the Elliott Review, it should ’expect the unexpected’.
“Key to the future is developing methods and systems that can detect change from the norm in food products and identify the source of that change. Fera is a leader in developing these non-targeted approaches. The beauty of these systems is that they not only detect the unexpected but also can be used for quality assurance and product improvement purposes,” said coordinator of the EU FoodIntegrity Project Paul Brereton.
One such fraud detection system that looks likely to gain substantial pace in the coming months is chemical fingerprinting.
Chemical fingerprinting involves the isolation of individual components within a sample so that researchers can understand each part of its chemical configuration, and compare it to a variety of pure and adulterated samples.
To perform chemical fingerprinting, researchers can utilise two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC-GC), coupled with time-of-flight mass spectrometry, to isolate a sample’s various chemical components and build a more thorough picture of a commodity’s chemical construction.
Though this is just one method used to tackle food crime and verify produce authenticity, the Elliott Review combines a multitude of approaches to prevent further scandal.
The appropriate bodies must now hit the ground running (or should that be galloping?) and work together at every opportunity to ensure food safety for both the UK and consumers from around the world.
A full version of the Elliott Review can be found here.