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An Authentic Approach to Food Safety

Scientist manipulating a meat sample with tweezers in a Petri dish.
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Professor Chris Elliott is world-renowned for his work in food safety and authenticity, with more than 500 papers to his name. Following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, Chris led the UK government's independent food system review and has spearheaded significant projects concerned with contaminants in the agri-food chain. In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, he founded The Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queens University Belfast, where researchers address food chain challenges from farm to fork, with particular attention to food safety, authenticity and traceability. IGFS is also home to the ASSET Technology Centre, listed as a Centre of Expertise by the Food Authenticity Network. In partnership with the UK National Measurement Laboratory, it also hosts the Centre for Excellence in Agriculture and Food Integrity.

In 2021, Agilent presented a Thought Leader Award to Chris for his work in food security and authenticity. He now oversees four projects (each led by a PhD scientist in his lab) that are part of that award and ongoing collaboration. We had the privilege of hearing from Mary McBride, associate vice president of applied segment marketing at Agilent, and Chris when they caught up recently at IGFS to discuss his career to date, his passion for food safety, the projects his team are working on and the future.

Mary McBride (MM): Chris, your research has spanned nearly 40 years. What is it about your work that keeps you so engaged and contributing at such a high level?

Chris Elliott (CE): At the beginning of my career, I moved from laboratory to laboratory getting trained by really good people. And actually, it was in animal physiology, veterinary science, hematology and biochemistry. So, I covered a lot of core disciplines.

But by luck and by chance, in 1986, Europe changed one of its rules around food safety. And that was about the use and misuse of drugs and animal production. With the change in European legislation came quite a lot of different job opportunities, because once you change legislation, then you have to have all of the different testing procedures and protocols in place.

It was when I started to work in this really quite new area that the unbelievable needs and challenges of measurement science really hit me. How are you going to start to measure things?

This is going back to when high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) was innovation because it was then thin layer chromatography, and you weren’t able to measure parts per million.

Then you’ve got the challenges of new technologies and once you get there, well, it’s actually parts per trillion that is more important now. I think the big challenge around really doing good science, is good measurement analysis: how can you measure parts per million, parts per billion, parts per trillion and do it in such a way that it’s not only about compliance with regulations, but it’s actually making an impact.

Are we really making food safer for people? I think that was really what attracted me to this particular area. Really from the mid-1980s to where I am now, it has been about trying to think what the next technology is, what the next best way to measure things is and how we can make food safer.

I talk to people about metrology and most people actually don’t even know what metrology is.

This is hard core measurement, doing measurement properly. And I think for as long as I work, I will be concentrating on that ability to do really good measurements, which have an impact on society.

Chris and Mary standing next to a glass balustrade facing each other in conversation.Chris and Mary in conversation. Credit: Agilent Technologies.

MM: In your work you’ve travelled the globe, rubbed elbows with royalty, been wooed by politicians and presidents. You’ve published extensively, mentored countless scientists and conducted cutting edge research. What aspects of your work over your career have you enjoyed the most and why

CE: I was awarded what’s called a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship in the 1990s, and that changed my life. When I was awarded the fellowship, because it was around food safety and looking at different things that are happening in different parts of the world, they allowed me to travel.

I set out for months and months, and I travelled right across Europe north, south, east and west. I met lots of phenomenal people in lots of different organizations and saw the type of scientific work that they were doing. But the most important thing was actually meeting those people and really liking them and getting on with them.

And you know, a lot of those people I met in the 1990s, they’re still friends of mine now, which is fantastic. I do remember when I came back from all the travels finally, I said, to my boss, “do you know what, we’re actually pretty good here!”.

MM: The Thought Leadership Award projects are pretty diverse and really looking at different areas of focus in food authenticity testing across a wide range of food commodities. And yet all the projects are united by that common theme of advancing the science of food authenticity testing. Can you tell us about this, and how you are discovering methods to meet the challenges of these projects?

CE: You’re right, we’re working on four different projects, things that people, particularly in the food industry in different parts of the world, had come to me with and said, “this is a problem and is there a way that good analytical chemistry can deal with these particular problems?”

I think that goes back to what we like to do, which is to undertake research that has an impact that will not just generate nice publications, but mean that we will develop and validate methodologies that people can actually use to make sure food is safer and more authentic.

Also, as a backdrop, we have done a huge amount of work on method development and validation for food authenticity, which has become a focus topic really since two things: the melamine scandal in China and the horsemeat scandal of Europe. These have driven a huge amount of research activity into food authenticity and an explosion of manuscript publications about it, which is good.

When I started off, I worked in a governmental research institute, and you just didn’t do method development for the fun of it. It had a purpose, and the purpose was those methodologies had to be implemented into national monitoring programs and they had to be robust because they were going to be subject to challenge and scrutiny and I have always had the same philosophy about anything that I’ve done.

I think back to the Thought Leadership Project and those four different areas, they’re all hugely challenging to get methodology that will work. And in fact, some of the people I’ve talked to in industry are pretty skeptical. I quite like that feedback.

I have always had a completely different view of analytical chemistry: if you have a problem, then you should look at a suite of different technology solutions to see which is right for you. And what we’ve built here at Queen’s University, the ASSET Technology Center, is exactly that. There are 50 or 60 different technology platforms, and I will say to my PhD students, my post-docs and my researchers, your solution is in there somewhere, you just have to find it.

Often, it will be through trial and error. You try something and for various reasons it might not work. Maybe the sample matrix is too high the sensitivity isn't good enough or it’s not sufficiently reproducible. But as you start to work through those technology platforms, you're much more likely to find the right solution. And that's exactly what we're doing in the Thought Leadership Project.

We have our four big areas, and we are starting off with a broad remit of looking at lots of different platforms, and what we will do is narrow down until we pick which one we think will be the winner, then we'll do the full validation.

Those are the methodologies that we will really work hard to make sure that other people will use it in different parts of the world.

MM: We're amazed at the outcome of the award in the short time that you and your team have been working on it, you're making some fantastic contributions. We're super excited to see where this goes, and we really feel that the work the team is doing has the potential to fundamentally change the way that we look at food, authenticity and testing.

About the participants:

Dr. Mary McBride

Headshot of Dr. Mary McBride
Dr. Mary McBride is associate vice president of applied markets at Agilent Technologies. She leads a team focused to develop strategy for growth across the applied segment markets (food, environmental, energy and chemical, materials and forensics). In this role she also drives Agilent’s end market strategic plan of record (SPR) and translates market intelligence and market research into actionable insights, enabling informed business decisions and conveying a competitive advantage across Agilent chemical and life sciences markets. She and her team analyze market performance to support Agilent’s senior investor relations communications. Mary has many years of business and market development experience and deep technical expertise in biological-based testing and biotechnology development. She holds a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of California at Davis, has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and holds 5 patents.

Professor Chris Elliott, PhD, FRSC, FRSB, MRIA, OBE

Headshot of Professor Chris Elliott
Chris is professor of food safety and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast. He served as pro vice chancellor for the Medical and Life Sciences Faculty between 2015 and 2018. He is also professor of food security at Thamassat University in Thailand.

He has published more than 500 peer review articles associated with the detection and control of agriculture, food and environmental-related contaminants. Protecting the integrity of the food supply chain from fraud is a key research topic and Chris led the independent review of Britain’s food system following the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Over the years, Chris has developed a high-level network of collaborators across Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Asia. He is a visiting professor at the China Agriculture University in Beijing, a recipient of a Winston Churchill Fellowship and is an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Royal Society of Biology. Chris has received numerous prizes and awards for his work. In 2017 he received the Royal Society of Chemistry Theophilus Redwood Prize and was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2020