Fighting Food Fraud
Blog Nov 20, 2015
The horse meat scandal of 2013 catapulted food fraud into the limelight and revealed how little we know about the food we eat. The ability to detect these contaminants has long been limited by existing technologies. In 2013 Dr Mike Bromley of Manchester University was awarded a research grant from the Technology Strategy Board and supported to develop technology that could solve these problems faced by the industry. The unique ‘next generation sequencing’ (NGS) technology he has developed means that, for the first time, analysts can ask the question ‘what exactly is in this sample?”
To discuss the impact of uncovering food fraud and the technology that is helping us to combat it, we spoke to Dr Mike Bromley, Founder, Genon Laboratories.
JR: What impact did the horsemeat scandal have for those working in food fraud?
MB: The publicity storm created by the horsemeat scandal, thanks largely to global media reporting and social networking, has ensured that consumer awareness of food fraud has never been greater. Today’s shoppers are justifiably more cautious and sceptical about what the food they buy actually contains; they are becoming more vocal and less tolerant of fraudulent activity. As such, brand-conscious food retailers are becoming more sensitive about the issue and the pressure on producers and manufacturers to clamp down on instances of food fraud has been mounting.
JR: Your company, Genon Laboratories, offers a wide range of specialist food and feed analysis, can you tell me how you are helping combat the increasing problem of food fraud?
MB:Notable advances in technology, such as the development of this NGS assay send a clear message to would-be fraudsters: the science is closing in.
Given that each new food fraud scandal that comes to light is eroding consumer confidence, retailers would be wise to take the view that a reliable clean bill of authenticity for food products is actually what their customers want to see. At Genon, we envision a new standard of food authenticity whereby this form of testing becomes the industry ‘gold standard.’ As technology such as this starts to come into common usage, it may be the case that fraudsters finally decide that the risks of being caught have finally become too high.
Where food products are concerned, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish between genuine, premium products and the low-quality substitutes that may have been used replace or bulk-up the original. This risk increases in instances where food products are diced, skinned, minced, or ground. As such, items such as herbs, spices, premium meats, and white fish are all at risk of being substituted by cheaper, readily available alternatives.
JR: Can you tell me more about the NGS technology you have developed and what benefits this offers over traditional analysis techniques?
MB:One of the substantial issues that the food industry has faced is that current analytical tests require an educated ‘guess’ as to the potential contaminants within foods. Existing technologies have dictated that the presence of each contaminant must be assessed individually, and so samples are routinely tested for the presence of a small number of the most commonly found adulterating materials. This has meant that detecting any more than a small number of adulterants has simply not been economically feasible.
Further compounding the problem, fraud is an underground activity, and fraudsters are renowned for their inventiveness and their ability to stay a step ahead of enforcement agencies. This means that being able to determine exactly which contaminants to test for is virtually an impossible task.
The NGS testing service enables robust, specific, detection of thousands of species from just one assay by assessing the mammalian, fish and plant populations within each samples. 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 over 7,000 different animal and plant species in a food sample.
The 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.
The technology tests for DNA samples from meat, fish, shellfish, and plants, circumventing the need for a manufacturer to second-guess which contaminant may be present in their food, as all species can be tested for and detected at the same time. In effect, for the first time testers can ask the question ‘what exactly is in this sample?” instead of specifying which particular DNA they are looking for.
JR: Alongside improvements to testing, what else do you believe needs to be done to improve the security of the food chain?
MB: The NGS testing method marks a very credible new dimension in food authenticity testing that could revolutionise food authenticity standards across the globe and I believe that this significant advance in the science of combatting food fraud could soon see NGS testing become the minimum standard that food retailers will look for from their suppliers – and consumers expect from retailers themselves.