A few weeks ago, we were joined by experts and industry leaders at our biennial Government Chemist Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Food chain resilience in a changing world’.
Attendees were treated to a variety of presentations about food chain resilience from Food Standards Agency, Public Health England, the European Commission’s Joint Research Council, Cambridge University, and many others.
Topics ranged from food crime to genome sequencing and genetics, as well as preparing the food industry for Brexit and systems for fighting fraud.
Among some of the popular topics discussed were meat speciation techniques and food authenticity, which underline current issues surrounding consumer trust in food manufacturing.
Methods for detecting trace amounts of undeclared ingredients in food have evolved enormously in recent years, but incidents still occur. Recent reports suggest that some ‘meat-free’ ready meals have even contained trace amounts of meat, although the exact amount and method of transfer have yet to be determined.
Any food used as an ingredient in a pre-packed processed product, (i.e. in the ‘recipe’) must be declared in the list of ingredients. Adventitious meat cross contamination isn’t generally regarded as deliberate fraud under 1 %. But even below this ‘cut-off’ point there are implications for consumer choice, especially if avoiding meat (vegetarian or vegan preferences), or specific meat species for religious reasons.
When ‘trace’ amounts of a material have been found in food, it suggests adventitious cross contamination (which could be obtained from inadequate cleaning of equipment, for example), rather than intentional adulteration. Particularly with foods that contain many ingredients, like ready meals, this could come from any of the ingredients at any point along the supply chain.
This makes the methodology of detection that much more important, as each technique has its own level of accuracy. For instance, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) screens for the absence or presence of specific DNA within a defined limit of detection, which would require the scientist to know what to look for. Care is required in carrying out these tests and interpretation of the results. Meanwhile, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) detects and sequences all DNA material in a sample, which allows for a greater understanding of the makeup of foods. Once the NGS finishes its analysis, millions of sequences can be analysed to identify species, but this method is more expensive and can be resource intensive.
These are just two examples of methods used recently to determine authenticity, but there isn’t uniformity in methods and standards around the world. Now that we are becoming more globally focussed than ever before, in both trade and knowledge sharing, there should be more harmonisation among techniques used in different places. Food supplies might cross several different borders before becoming food; processed, tested and analysed with different standards. It’s important that we have robust systems in place to ensure that food standards and methods for measurement are equal and that all food is both safe and exactly what it claims to be.
And many of the speakers and attendees of the GC Conference are working toward that goal, sharing their expertise on sound science, building systems for detection of fraud, and enforcing stronger regulations for food safety.