Improving the detection of food fraud

The ‘Which?’ revelation this week that as much as 70% of some oregano products could be made up of bulking ingredients, serves as a reminder that food fraud certainly hasn’t gone away.

Food fraud is not a new concept. Historical and recent records are littered with examples of unscrupulous individuals adulterating both high-value (e.g. saffron and caviar) and mass-produced foods (e.g. fish and coffee) to increase profits. The first British statute combatting food fraud was the 13th Century Assisa panis et cervisiae (Assize of bread and ale). Since then numerous laws have been implemented to address this issue, including the recent European FIC Regulation.

As consumers, we have never been tolerant of such fraud however our awareness of the issues have never been greater thanks to global media reporting and social networking. The dramatic impact of the horsemeat scandal has focused the minds of manufacturers and retailers alike.

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd argued that retailers, producers and enforcement officers must step up checks to eradicate food fraud. But how can retailers and manufacturers realistically address this issue?

With the food on our shelves coming from an ever-increasing number of sources worldwide, the number of potential contaminants is vast however our capability to detect these has been limited by existing technologies.

Current analytical tests require an educated ‘guess’ as to the potential contaminants within foods. The presence of each needs to be assessed individually, meaning that detecting any more than a small number of adulterants is not economically feasible. Furthermore until recently, detection methods for most contaminants were not available. This problem was exemplified by another Which? study that was unable to identify the meat found in 5 different takeaway meals.

Thankfully the technology does now exist to provide a comprehensive picture of the genetic content of any foodstuff. Using the same technological advances that now allow scientists to sequence a whole human genome in a day, it is now possible to simultaneously detect the presence of 7,000 different animal and plant species in a food sample.

This ‘next generation sequencing’ technology means that, for the first time, analysts can ask the question ‘what exactly is in this sample?” instead of specifying which particular contaminant they are looking for and hoping they are right. Such developments in technology add to the arsenal available to the food industry to support retailers and manufactures in their war on food fraud.

As many food fraud cases don’t present health risks, some may argue that such thoroughness represents overkill.

But given that each new case coming to light further erodes consumer confidence, retailers may well take the view that a clean bill of authenticity with each food product they sell is actually what their customers want to see.

Furthermore as such technology comes into common usage fraudsters may also decide that the risk of being caught have finally become too high.

Dr Mike Bromley is founder of Genon Laboratories (which was acquired by Synergy Health Laboratories in 2014)


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