As free trade and international migration have given diners and food shoppers an increased range of ingredients, recipes and specialist foodstuffs, consumers’ expectation of product quality have also risen, making the verification of the origins and composition of every item more important than ever before.
With consumer interest in product quality increasing, the technology used to trace and authenticate foodstuffs is becoming essential for global food sector businesses like never before - putting vital techniques like elemental analysis in the spotlight.
Consumers no longer just concerned with price and nutritional value
Today’s consumers are much more careful about what they eat beyond just the price and nutritional value, looking at farming practices, particular origins and specific artisanal traditions.
A survey of more than 800 people conducted by a UK-based isotope ratio mass spectrometry manufacturer in 2017 revealed consumers share similar concerns over the accuracy of food labeling. Some 84% of respondents check where their food has come from, either “all”, “most” or “some” of the time. It also found that 66% are either “very” or “quite” concerned about where their food has come from, while 68% said the origin of food is either ”very” or ”quite” important when making purchasing decisions.
The poll also indicated that 80% believe all food labeling should state exactly where items have come from, while 52% said they would not buy a product again if they found out that it had been mislabeled.
These trends reflect the rise in demand for gluten-free foods and allergen labeling as consumers are increasingly focusing on ethical sourcing and specific dietary requirements. Additionally, high-profile mislabeling scandals - such as the infamous horse meat scandal in 2013 - have shed light on the importance of maintaining a transparent and fully traceable food supply chain.
How will Brexit affect this?
Currently, UK foodstuffs are protected by European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) rules, which are designed to safeguard legally the authenticity of food products that are unique to a region or a particular manufacturing process, such as Stilton blue cheese, Jersey Royal potatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or Scotch whisky. Leaving the EU means British businesses and consumers will no longer be protected by PDO regulations, which could result in generic replicas flooding the market and bringing down the value of the premium product.
Although there are ways in which this could deliver increased competitiveness and lower prices for consumers, such deregulation could also lead to reductions in product quality, the erosion of traditional marketing methods, and an overall loss of confidence in the traceability of food sold in the UK. This is why it is vital that the UK government comes up with a legal solution for food protection, backed up by rigorous testing protocols, to ensure that consumer demand for high-quality, authentic food products continues to be met.
Following warnings from Brussels for more to be done to protect EU food products, the UK government will introduce geographical indication (GI) schemes if there is to be a no-deal Brexit. These schemes will mirror the existing EU schemes and fulfil the UK’s World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations in order to protect products associated with a specific geographical location.
Regulated by the relevant trading standards bodies, the UK schemes will safeguard the geographical names of food, drink and agricultural products, including beer, cider, perry, spirits, wine, and aromatized wine.
How elemental analysis helps authentication
Elemental analysis is a tried-and-tested tool that should be in the arsenal of food producers and testers. The method measures the total protein content of food items to provide important information on how the properties of a product are affected; for example, protein content can influence dough quality, the taste of beer and foam formation, as well as differentiate between regular starch and gluten-free starch.
Additionally, by using stable isotope analysis to look at the unique isotope signature of foodstuffs, this helps to detect whether items have been fraudulently adulterated with low-quality additives, confirm the use of organic food practices, or distinguish premium and protected food from their generic counterparts by analyzing the isotopic “fingerprint”.
While none of these innovations are new, they have never been more critical to help provide protection and moderate food quality according to consumer interest in what is an uncertain time for legislation related to food labeling. Elemental analyzers may not immediately come to mind when considering the technology to safeguard the reputations of premium suppliers and protect the future of specialist and traditional foods. However, their role in helping consumers and producers alike have confidence in the quality of their food will continue to bloom.