Nov 21

Proficiency Testing and the fight against food fraud

The supply of food and beverages is now a massive worldwide industry generating trillions of pounds for producers, retailers and intermediaries. ‘Value’ is generally added at each stage of a product’s life and certain foods or beverages have ‘added value’ as a result of a designated geographical origin or as a result of production using a specified process.
pan fried white fish on salad dinner food iStock_000003323578XLarge

In recent years ‘issues’ relating to the safety, quality and origin of food have arisen as a result of mistakes in the production process, such as the introduction of waste materials into food production processes, or via illicit production or adulteration.

The analysis of foods, raw materials and ingredients may be undertaken by a number of different organisations, for a number of different reasons potentially pertaining to quality, for the purposes of brand protection or even for evidence in prosecution. In response to increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting or food adulteration, a wide range of analytical methodology is being developed and used by concerned organisations and agencies. An important aspect of method development and the on-going operation of analytical methods is verification of their performance by the use of Proficiency Testing (PT). PT is a unique tool for the assessment of these analytical methods as it is completely independent of the organisation undertaking the testing and is the only QC ‘tool’ where the analyst cannot know the correct answer in advance.

LGC operates a number of proficiency testing (PT) schemes, many of which are in the area of food and beverage analysis. These schemes are routinely used to assess the performance of analytical methods which have been validated for the qualitative identification of specific food products, or to quantitatively determine the concentration of characteristic components or contaminants.

The DAPS scheme focuses on the analysis of alcoholic beverages, such as cider, wine and spirits, with a specific sample included each round for the analysis of Scotch Whisky.

The QMAS scheme is concerned with methods used for the determination of quality parameters in meat and fish products. As a result of recent food ‘concerns’ the scheme has been expanded to include tests for the identification of fish species and of ‘contamination’ of meat and fish products.

The use of regular PT in these analytical areas, via the LGC schemes, provides valuable information on the performance of laboratories in key tests which are used on a day to day basis to detect counterfeit products and adulteration. Examination of PT data gives information on the accuracy and equivalence of analytical methods, robustness across a range of sample types and analytical matrices and the ‘performance’ of companies, laboratories and individual members of staff.

To find out more about how PT Schemes are used to tackle food and beverage fraud come to our Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’ on 24-25 November.


Nov 20

Food fraud or cross contamination: will it all come out in the wash?

mince_meat_webWhen the ‘horse meat incident’ emerged in January 2013, it caused anger and consternation from many consumers. They felt duped and cheated, but were all instances a case of unscrupulous businesses trying to profiteer at the expense of food safety?

A large scale investigation was launched into the food industry to establish how far reaching the contamination of processed beef products with horse and pork meat was.

While some companies were found to be trading 100% horse meat as beef products, others contained contamination at much smaller percentages. Thus the question arose – could contamination be down to carry-over on the processing line rather than a flagrant flouting of the law? And if so, what level of carry-over, if any, was acceptable?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were advised by LGC and announced a threshold of 1% for reporting levels of carry-over.

But for some consumers, it is not just a question of being misled by the product labelling but the discovery they have consumed a meat they have chosen to exclude for religious beliefs; both Muslim and Jewish faiths outlaw the consumption of pig meat.

So, is it reasonable to expect the manufacturing industry to guarantee with 100% integrity the species content of the meat it is supplying – particularly when a product is declared halal or kosher?

There is no direct legal requirement for manufacturers to clean mincing equipment between red meat species but in any case, would this help to minimise or even eliminate carry-over when more than one meat species is processed on the same production line?

LGC undertook a research project, commissioned by Defra and FSA, investigating whether carry-over of meat species occurs during the industrial production of minced meat when good manufacturing practice (GMP) is followed and, if it does, at what concentrations it occurs. The mincing of pork followed by beef was studied.

To check the effectiveness of the deep chemical and water wash cleaning regimes used in commercial meat plants, LGC scientists took samples of minced beef and swabs of the equipment and analysed them for traces of pork.

Find out what the research revealed and get the latest updates on the science of food authenticity, food integrity and food fraud at our Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’ on 24-25 November.

Nov 19

Why are thousands of people counting down the days to 13 December?

A selection of nuts on a wooden spoonSaturday 13 December is an important day for anyone with a serious food allergy in the UK, for it marks a significant shift in the burden of responsibility caterers have towards customers with allergies. It is the day that catering businesses, including restaurants, takeaways, bakeries and delicatessens, must tell customers if any of the 14 major allergens are present in the food they sell or serve.

While grabbing a bite to eat on the move is a common trait of today’s increasingly hectic society, for those with allergies it is a minefield. If the food they are allergic to is present, they risk a severe or even life-threatening reaction – a risk that many aren’t prepared to take as they cannot confidently know what is in the food.

But with new labelling rules, introduced under the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (No. 1169/2011), this is to change. Caterers serving foods without packaging will now have to provide information on any of the 14 allergens used as ingredients. This information could be written down on a chalk board or chart, or simply relayed by a member of staff. Where the specific allergen information is not provided upfront, clear signposting to where this information could be obtained must be provided.

While this will not completely eliminate the risk of someone with a food allergy eating something that triggers a reaction (it only covers information about major allergens intentionally used as ingredients and not allergens present following accidental contact), it is a big step towards helping to minimise the risk and arming people with the information they need to manage their allergies.

For those selling pre-packed foods, allergens must be emphasised on the ingredients label. Food businesses can choose what method they want to use to emphasise these, for example, by listing them in bold.

On those rare occasions when things go wrong and a serious anaphylaxis incident or, tragically, a death occurs there may be legal implications. Michael Walker, consultant referee analyst for the Government Chemist programme, and Hazel Gowland, Allergy Action and food adviser for the UK Anaphylaxis Campaign, recently wrote about the latest allergen measurement techniques and reviewed allergen non-compliance cases in the UK courts in an article published in the journal of the Institute of Food Science and Technology.

For advice on food allergen labelling, including how to buy food safely when you have a food allergy or intolerance, take a look at the Food Standards Agency website.

If you need to know more about how to analyse for allergens come to our Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’ on 24-25 November.

Nov 18

Food authenticity: more than just a question of taste

WhiskyNot any old pie can hold the name of Melton Mowbray pork pie. Similarly, only a pasty made in Cornwall following the traditional recipe can be called a Cornish pasty and only specific bottles of plonk can be declared as champagne. These products have all been awarded special status that protects their name in the EU, with the aim of highlighting regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed. There are 3 statuses: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO); Protected Geographical Indication (PGI); and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG).

Under this system a named food or drink registered at a European level will be given legal protection against imitation which could result in an inferior product. But what protection is there for manufacturers of other products that don’t have this status? And how, as consumers, do we know that the organic or premium product we are buying is what it says it is on the label?

Food fraud is big business. It is thought to cost the UK food industry £7 billion a year, with as much as 10% of the food on sale not as described. Fraud may be carried out to increase profitability by mimicking an established brand or reducing manufacturing costs.

Many companies go to great lengths to protect the integrity of their products, with stable isotope analysis one screening method that acts as a useful indicator of potential fraudulent activity.

Although the relative abundance of isotopes was fixed when the earth was formed – and on a global scale has not changed since – the isotopic composition of a material can be subtly affected by its geographical origin, or how it has been processed or manufactured.

Stable isotope ratio analysis can be used to give an indication as to whether a food has come from a certain geographic location or has been adulterated with a cheaper ingredient, as in the case of honey mixed with corn syrup. The analysis provides an isotopic fingerprint of a product, which can reveal information about its origin or production method.

Measurement of the small differences in isotope ratios has been used extensively in food authenticity testing, forensics and environmental analysis to provide information on the origin of materials. To establish an ‘isotopic profile’ for a material, the ratios of the stable isotopes of a range of elements such as 2H/1H, 18O/16O, 13C/12C, 15N/14N and 34S/32S are determined using mass spectrometry.

For example, Florida orange juice will have an isotopic signature consistent with water from Florida. By analysing the hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios, it is possible to tell if the orange juice is fresh juice bottled in Florida or if it has been made from a concentrate and hydrated from water sourced elsewhere.

This technique can also be used to guard against counterfeit whisky. Distilleries tend to get their water from the same place and they produce their whisky in a very consistent way. Therefore the isotopic signature of the water within an authentic whisky will be unique to that area.

LGC scientist Phil Dunn will be revealing more about how isotope ratio measurements can be used in the determination of food authenticity and origin, including the challenging measurements involved in the certification of the new isotope ratio reference material for absolute C isotope ratio traceable to the SI, during a presentation at the Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’.

Nov 17

The Government Chemist Conference 2014

With a history dating back to 1842, LGC remains home to the unique function of the Government Chemist.

Providing expert opinion, based on independent chemical and bioanalytical measurement, we help to avoid or resolve disputes pertaining to food and agriculture in order to protect the public.

Bacon cheeseburgers

The Government Chemist Conference, ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’, is taking place next week in London. In the run-up to the conference, a new article will be published every day on the LGC blog related to topics which will be the focus of the conference, including the new allergen labelling rules, carry-over of meat on food processing lines and the importance of reference materials in food authenticity.

The conference will address issues of food fraud, authenticity and safety.

The fallout of the contamination of beef with horse meat, which was reported in January 2013, continues to unfold. During this time, Government Chemist staff have played an important role in providing scientific advice and rigour around the testing regimes used to identify and semi-quantify the levels of adulteration of meat products; and related disputes provided a high case load for our Referee Function.

Sound measurement science plays a critical role in ensuring food safety and authenticity. The complexity of supply chains and the advances in products and manufacturing practices provide increasing challenges for the measurement community in building confidence in the marketplace.

The sharing of scientific knowledge and best practice around these issues is essential in helping to tackle problems at the heart of food scandals.  At this year’s  conference, we have a number of experts in food safety and security speaking including Chris Elliott, who undertook the Elliott Review, Michael Rosenmark, from the Danish Food Flying Squad, and Lucy Foster, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am delighted that we have such a strong programme of speakers for the conference who are willing to share their considerable expertise.

I look forward to seeing you at the conference next week.


Nov 07

Remembrance Sunday: Remembering Fromelles

As a nation we have a duty to honour those who have given their lives for our country. On Remembrance Sunday this weekend, we will remember the millions of servicemen who have fought for our freedom. In the hundredth year since the start of the First World War many of us will remember the 10 million soldiers who lost their lives. My thoughts will be with the soldiers killed during the Battle of Fromelles. In July of this year, I accompanied Victoria Moore, James Walker and Daniel Moore, all scientists at LGC who had worked on a project to help identify 144 soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles, to visit Fromelles Military Cemetery in Northern France.  After five years as part of this truly rewarding project, we have made a video about the science behind the Fromelles story.

For this video I interviewed James and Victoria, was shown around the DNA lab by Daniel and accompanied all three to Northern France to visit the Fromelles Military Ceremony. Talking to James and Victoria was fascinating; not only is the science behind this project truly interesting but James and Victoria cared hugely about doing these soldiers and their family’s justice; this was evident in their outstanding work and in the way they talked about it. It was an honour to visit Fromelles with James, Victoria and Daniel. It was clearly very important to them that they attended a ceremony marking the 98th year since the battle took place. In Fromelles, we visited the graves of soldiers LGC had helped to identify and had the opportunity to meet living relatives of the buried soldiers, many of whom had travelled from Australia. This made the project human. Speaking to the relatives was particularly moving as they were so grateful for the work LGC had done.

The work James, Victoria, Daniel and the rest of the Specialist DNA Team have done on this project is truly amazing. 144 successful DNA identifications is outstanding. More importantly though, they provided comfort and closure to 144 families and gave 144 heroes a dignified burials. Watch the video below to find out more about the work carried by James, Victoria and their team.


Article submitted by Emma Swaden, Group Communications Assistant at LGC.

Oct 14

A history of butter fraud – but how far does it spread?

Butter is without any question the most counterfeited food. This was the opening sentence at the symposium in Brussels in 1888 and while butter may not be the most counterfeited food today, the authenticity and quality of butters and margarines on sale today still come into question.

buttered toastBack in the late 1800s, analytical chemists and control authorities were concerned that chalk and potato starch was used to bulk out butter, increasing the quantity and boosting profits for the seller. After margarine appeared on the market, sellers would also try to sell margarine as if it was butter as well as mixing much cheaper margarine into the butter.

There’s no doubt that the safety of our food supply has greatly improved over the last century, but food fraud involving cases of dilution, substitution and mislabelling continue to persist within the global food industry.

This became apparent when we organised training for expert witnesses giving evidence in food prosecutions and the adulteration of butter and dairy products was a popular topic for discussion.

In 2000, the European Anti-fraud Office (Olaf) snared a sophisticated criminal operation to adulterate butter orchestrated by a Mafia gang in Italy. The gang used 5 000 tonnes of substances of beef tallow and vegetable material and 400 tonnes of synthetic, laboratory-produced substances in the manufacture of a total of 16,000 tonnes of finished product, which was falsely declared as butter. This adulterated butter was used for the production of foodstuffs, butter and concentrated butter, which sold for more than 45 million Euros.

Food crime by organised criminals was something raised by Professor Chris Elliott in his recent review into the ‘Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks’. While he acknowledged that the recommendations he makes in the report “will not stop food crime” he states that they are “intended to make it much more difficult for criminals to operate in the UK”.

It is also one of the motives behind regulations for more stringent labelling of our food (The Food Information Regulations 2014), which will come into force in December 2014. One of the requirements under this new legislation is that the generic term ‘vegetable oil’ used in the labelling of food containing oil blends must be replaced by the name of the oil.

In light of these changes, Michael Walker, from the Government Chemist programme, and two co-authors set out to review the history of butter and margarine adulteration in two countries that differed in their food law and examined modern methods of testing the authenticity of butter. The result is a fascinating trip through chemical and food history and a revelation of the lengths that fraudsters can go to in the 21st century.

Did you know, for example, that we unearthed reports of synthetic triacylglycerols being used to adulterate butterfat, a practice only detectable by sophisticated Carbon 13 magnetic resonance spectroscopy?

Find out more about the science of food fraud at our Government Chemist Conference ‘Beating the cheats: Quality, safety and authenticity in the food chain’ on 24-25 November.

Oct 03

Rapid rise in workplace drugs testing

The BBC today have said that workplace drug testing has increased significantly in the UK. In an article, which featured LGC, the BBC claimed that the rise in the number of annual tests carried out by drugs screening companies is between 40 and 470%. LGC has seen a 100% increase in the number of annual tests carried out over the last four years.

Lianne Gray, LGC’s strategic account manager for occupational drug testing, said employees in safety-critical roles – such as operating heavy machinery or driving – and government agenciedrugs_white_powder_cocaine_iStock_000000917323Mediums were most likely to be screened.

She also explained that there was a growing trend for drug testing to be conducted in “more normalised industries”, including retail and health companies, as businesses look to “safeguard not only the business, but also the reputation in the field they work in”.

Ms Gray said there had been changes in the types of drugs for which businesses wished to screen.

“Traditionally we see requests for amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, opiates,” she said. “Now we’re seeing more requests for things like ketamine, steroids, and also for novel psychoactive substances – or legal highs as they’re otherwise known.”

Alcohol and drugs abuse in the workplace is a growing problem that disrupts teamwork, reduces productivity, damages customer relationships and, ultimately, shrinks profits. It also poses a real risk to the health and safety of fellow workers, and to the individuals responsible.

LGC offers a complete service for pre-employment, random and ‘for cause’ workplace screening, with expert interpretation and the ability to find and associate other important factors to substantiate positive results. Our standards are extremely high and all our laboratory systems and procedures and workplace screening kits comply with UK Guidelines for legally defensible workplace drug testing.

If you missed LGC on the BBC this morning, make sure you listen to catch up on Radio 4. Mention of LGC can be found 2 hours and 6 minutes.


Aug 28

You’re invited to LGC’s end of summer barbecue!

As we near the last couple of weeks of summer, you may heating up your barbecue whilst enjoying the last few rays of sun.

But do you know how safe the food is you’re eating, and do you know what’s really on the menu?

LGC offersred beef meat on wooden plate an unmatched range of standards and proficiency testing schemes, from pharmaceutical & forensics, to food, industrial and environmental. This is why thousands of laboratories around the world chose us as their partner to provide high quality reference materials.

We also play a role in the fight against food fraud. LGC provides a low cost multi speciation service for raw and processed meats and meat products so that you know what’s in your burgers.

Find out more about how LGC helps to make summer safer.



Aug 18

LGC scientists attend ‘deeply moving’ Fromelles memorial ceremony

The Battle for Fromelles took place on July 19 1916. It resulted in the death of 4000 British and commonwealth soldiers and has consequently become known as the worst 24 hours in Australian history. Since 2009, LGC scientists have worked alongside the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Oxford Archaeology to identify the fallen soldiers. So far, 144 soldiers have been identified. In July, I travelled to Fromelles alongside LGC scientists who had worked on the Fromelles project – James Walker, Victoria Moore and Daniel Moore – for a ceremony to mark the 98th anniversary of the battle.

The memorial service was extremely moving. It was attended by veterans from France, Britain and Australia, who opened the ceremony with a military procession. Representatives from the French government, the British Foreign Office and the Australian army then spoke very movingly about the battle and the men who lost their lives in it. The ceremony was concluded by children from the local primary school placing flowers on the graves of each of the soldiers that had been recently identified as the soldiers’ names were read out. This was incredibly moving and left very few dry eyes.

Victoria explained that, “it was so emotional to hear the names being called out. It becomes more than just a story, it really hit home what we had done and what it meant to their families.”

fromelles 3

James Walker, Daniel Moore and Victoria Moore at Fromelles cemetery.

After the ceremony, living relatives of the recently identified soldiers, many of whom had travelled from Australia, visited the graves of their ancestors. Each person who attended the ceremony was given a small wooden cross to place on the grave of a soldier.

We were very privileged to have the opportunity to meet the families and see the graves of soldiers that LGC has identified. James described it as a day of remembrance:

“Remembering the five years we at LGC have been involved in Fromelles: highs and lows; remembering attending the first year commemoration of the new Commonwealth War Grave at Fromelles (which took place in 2010); and finally sharing in the memories of the 20 families that have had their never forgotten dead heroes finally named on headstones in a very pretty and peaceful cemetery.”

The ceremony was followed by drinks and brioche at the local primary school, which has been renamed Cobber School, after the Australian troops who lost their lives in Fromelles. At the school we had the opportunity to talk to relatives of Fromelles soldiers. We met a man whose great uncle had been remembered during the service. He had travelled from Adelaide for the ceremony and explained that it meant a great deal to him to see his relative, who he’d heard about all his life, be laid to rest with dignity.

To end the day, we visited the Museum of the Battle of Fromelles, which provided information on the work that went into the Fromelles project and on the identification of the soldiers. The museum also had mock trenches and artefacts from the graves to show what life would have been like there during the war. Finally, the museum displayed information about and photos of all the soldiers that had been identified. This further drove home the human element of this remarkable project.

Overall, we all had a interesting and rather emotional day. It was really moving to see the impact of LGC’s work in this incredible project. This was made particularly clear when speaking to relatives of soldiers and visiting the graves of soldiers LGC has helped to identify.

A video about the Fromelles project, including footage of our recent trip will be available soon so make sure you keep an eye on our YouTube channel. For more photos of our trip, have a look at our Facebook page.

Article by Emma Swaden, Communications Assistant at LGC.

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