/ Food & Drink

Professor Elliott: what food scandal could be next?

goats cheese

After leading a review into our food supply networks, Professor Chris Elliott explains how we need to monitor the food supply chain to prevent any future food scandals. Find out more from him in this guest post:

During my review of the UK’s food systems it became clear to me the complexity for the food industry to supply us, the consumers, with over 25,000 different products each and every day. The fundamental aim is ensuring each of these products is safe to eat and genuine.

When you consider the industry is worth over £100bn each year, the possibility of making extra cash out of taking a few shortcuts, or basically cheating, will always be there.

This is far from the attitude of those I met in the food industry. But due to the complex nature of supply chains, there must always be a high degree of vigilance to protect their reputation, and more importantly, the consumer.

The next food scandals?

The burning question I was asked over and over again is: what food scandals will be next? This is extremely difficult to answer but there are a number of important ways that some degree of logic can be applied to determining risks.

One of those is the indicator of shortage of supply. I applied this theory to the UK food system and quickly found out that there was a shortage of goats’ milk across Europe. Generally, when there are shortages there is a matched increase in prices.

However, when I asked a few retailers if they had observed any price hike in goats’ cheese the answer was generally no. So when things don’t add up, then there is a strong case to do some testing. I relayed my concerns about the goat milk shortage to the Food Standards Agency and Which?.

I was very pleased when Which? offered to take samples for testing from across the UK. At my laboratory in Belfast we undertook cutting edge testing called Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification, LAMP for short, supplied by the UK company Optigene.

Getting our goat

We tested the goats cheese samples for a wide range of different animal species. I had actually expected to detect some adulteration with cow’s protein but what we found was substantial amounts (more than 50% in this example) of sheep protein in six cases out of 76.

When I looked into why sheep products had been used, the answer seemed to be that there is plenty of this around and the taste to most of us will be very similar and thus ‘undetectable’ by the consumer.

In four of the six cases the goats’ cheese product was heavily contaminated with sheep protein originating from outside the UK. My message is not that all things foreign are bad, but that when supply chains are long and lack local knowledge and long term relationships there must be more opportunities for cheating and thus more checks are needed.

So here we have a nice example of dealing with food adulteration; look for economic indicators of shortages and apply tests which will detect a wide range of product substitution. I will be following the goats’ cheese issues with the companies involved, not to blame the sellers of the products, but to work with them to get to the bottom of what went wrong.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Professor Elliott, author of the Elliott Review. All opinions expressed here are Chris’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.

Comments
Member

Some people suffer from food allergies, though intolerance is far more common. Certain food allergies can be severe, even life threatening. If someone dies as a result of food adulteration, that will draw attention to the problem.

We need to make sure that anyone found guilty of food adulteration is banned from working in the food industry for the rest of their life.

Member
Sophie Gilbert says:
21 October 2014

Unnecessarily added salt and sugar is a scandal, which I hope will be next, in some breads, cereals, fruit and vegetables juices, pre-prepared meals, you name the product. We know that too much sugar and salt cause serious health problems, but very little is being done about added salt and sugar in manufactured products. Giving us quantities and percentage on the boxes they’re sold in plainly isn’t working. We need to prevent too much salt and sugar from being added at source. We can do this by adding less and less salt and sugar in the products as the months and years pass by and our tastes naturally become used to less salty and sugary stuff. Here’s hoping.

One of the problems with this scandal is that this isn’t as emotional as eg horse meat sold as beef, so it goes on merrily for now without anyone being able to do much about it, even if our doctors are blue in the face.

Member

Interesting convo.

My other half is allergic to cow’s milk but is okay with sheep and goat products, but has had a reaction to their cheese on occasion. We put it down to a mix-up with ingredients and assume the cow’s milk got in there by accident.

We informed a sheep’s cheese manufacturer in Yorkshire about this a few years ago but they did not bother to reply. I suppose this report could explain why. Needless to say, we haven’t bought their products since.

Adding cow’s milk to goat and sheep products could be life-threatening to anyone with a severe allergy.

How and where can you report these things to so they can be investigated? Informing the manufacturer or taking the product back to the supermarket seems to be a waste of time.

Member
Old Derbeian says:
15 February 2015

I endorse what you say. My wife has a cow’s milk allergy and has an awful time trying to organise her many medications so that they don’t contain lactose which is a common binder agent. Two nights ago we had a cheese and biscuits meal when she ate various goats cheeses. Next day she had swollen ankles which is a sign of a cow’s milk reaction. This is a reaction that can take weeks to go away. She is naturally very worried to think goat’s or sheep’s cheese could be adulterated with cow’s milk. Surely it is illegal not to honestly state ingredients? We need to know exactly what’s in these products. This is a serious matter of healthcare. The guilty products should at least be named so we can avoid them if necessary.

Member

I sympathise with your wife and also know how difficult it is to get medications without milk in them.

Catering sheep’s and goat’s cheese very often has cow’s milk in it. Catering establishments normally don’t mind showing you the packaging but the ingredients are very often missing and you are right, we do need to know what is in these products.

I was hoping Professor Elliott would come back to this thread and answer a few questions like who you should report these things to.

Member

It would be interesting to know which supermarkets (if any) sold the “fake” goats cheese. To my mind, having faith in a shop’s or supermarket’s integrity helps greatly in deciding whether the food you generally buy is what it says and of sound quality (if that bothers you). So I would suggest we monitor adulterated products by shop and build up a picture of trust (or otherwise).

Member

Supermarkets probably wouldn’t know if they were selling a branded “fake” goat’s cheese.

On the other hand, they sell so much own brand stuff these days they should be held accountable.

Supermarket own brand products need to have a lot more information on them as to their contents and origin. Some of their products could be produced by a well-known brand whereas others could be from anywhere.

I would like to see the name of the producer on all supermarket own branded products.

Member

Food adulteration has a long history. Here is an article about what has gone on in the past: http://www.rsc.org/education/eic/issues/2005mar/thefightagainstfoodadulteration.asp

The public may be unaware of adulteration or – as in the example given by Alfa – suspect there is something wrong. To tackle the problem, rapid and sensitive assays are needed, such as the example mentioned in the introduction to this Conversation. It is impractical to test all foods for every possible form of adulteration but, as Prof Elliott has explained, it may be possible to predict where to look for problems.

I would very much like to know what the penalties are for food adulteration. They need to be sufficient to ensure that it is not worth companies treating fines as an operating cost and to make sure that those individuals found guilty never work in the food industry again.

Member

Very interesting article wavechange. It’s amazing what was added to food in the past and there must have been some very sick people around.

I agree on the need for serious penalties for food adulteration. Also more naming and shaming.

Any food company breaking the rules should also have to have remote observation installed so they can be monitored at any time.

Member

The best “remote observation” would be from responsible employees who see this happening and report it (we need confidential and well-publicised bodies to take individual’s reports and act on them – it works in the civil aviation sector).

Member

With the impracticality and cost of testing foods for adulteration, encouraging those with inside knowledge to make confidential reports may be the only practical alternative. With Trading Standards unable to cope with many of the complaints it currently receives, it is difficult to know how a scheme for whistleblowers could be run effectively. Furthermore, those working in small companies might be unable to raise attention to problems because it would be obvious who had reported the problem. I agree with what Malcolm has suggested but I don’t know how it might work.

Member

We need a determined effort to set up organisations to deal with “reporters” (nicer then “whistleblowers”?). They need organisations that take their information in confidence and can act quickly when abuses are clearly occuring.
It needs to be across industry and services – healthcare, banking, food might be good ones to start with?

Member
Neil Matthews says:
22 October 2014

I read your article following the introduction of the Food Fraud Report with great interest. We welcome the government’s announcement that it will establish a Food Crime Unit and support the conclusions drawn by Professor Chris Elliot. We feel the measures taken will go some way to restore public confidence within the retail and grocery sectors.

We know that theft is also a serious issue for many retailers. For instance, the last Global Retail Theft Barometer (GRTB), showed shrink rates for high-risk food, such as fresh meat, reached 2.35 per cent in Europe versus a global retail shrink average of 1.48 per cent. Despite the challenge, retailers are making great strides in the fight against retail crime, but there is still more that can be done and it’s great to see Professor Elliot’s recommendations being taken so seriously.

However, to effectively help the fight against food fraud, manufacturers should not just support the initiatives as outlined in Elliot’s report. They should also ensure that visibility and traceability are guaranteed at every stage of the supply chain by source tagging merchandise at the point of manufacture. For example, the widespread use of pre-packaged food formats has introduced an opportunity to work with food tray manufacturers to integrate security labels into the base, with industry trials revealing a reduction of theft by 86% and increased sales of 11%.

We believe one of the most simple but effective ways to reduce the economic impact of food fraud for the retailer whilst ensuring merchandise availability for the consumer is clear: secure tagging and labelling applied at the source. By deterring potential thieves using visible tagging – the application of security tags in a non-discreet manner – and improving the customer experience, retailers can deter theft, keep products on-shelves and ensure customer satisfaction is safeguarded.

Neil Matthews, Vice President, Checkpoint Systems.

Member

Promoting a commercial organisation that helps reduce theft from shops might not be relevant to this conversation. However, if your talents could be applied to tracking food from source to retailer to ensure reliable traceability, that might be relevant?

Member
Geoffrey Twell says:
27 October 2014

As the only producer of Artisan Goat Cheese in Northamptonshire, we think you findings are alarming. We carefully produce hard cheese from our own “trip” of goats, and make the cheese on site. We can therefore guarantee the provenance of our product.
It is now down to consumers to indicate to producers that unless they can provide the same guarantees, they will shop elsewhere for product.
The time is fast approaching when the consumer will demand that all producers are able to provide a clear and concise desciption of the origin of all ingredients in their products.
Our advice is shop local to ensure top quality.

Member
Robin says:
1 November 2014

This is a great piece of work.
Are there reasons why you can’t reveal which samples were adulterated?

I work in the food industry and would be very interested to know who was right and who was wrong about what they were selling … it would also be good to know how the retailers and producers respond to this; I wonder what feedback you are getting from those who have been caught out?

I feel very strongly that it is no good Which trying to whip up a media storm about these things unless there is transparency and action. What is also missing from this piece – or the way it has been publicised by Which – is the economic context for all this: goats milk supply has been under pressure across Europe because many goat trips/herds have been hit by disease in the last 18 months. It is not an excuse, but it explains why goats products in particular are a “hot” area to look (similar to rising beef prices leading to the discovery of adulteration with horse meat in 2013). There is a danger of suggesting that we have widespread problems in the UK when the Elliott Review confirmed that the UK has one of the safest and most honest food supply chains in the world. This is not a reason for complacency but is something for us to be proud of, something to support and something to export.

Member

Which? please can you ask Professor Elliott if he could find the time to comment on some of the points made here.

Member

alfa, hear hear! And not just prof Elliot. I do wish that those who write introductions – particularly guest contributors but also Which? staff – would look regularly at the responses. When a plausible ides is put forward it deserves an expert (or opinionated!) response. But especially when the intro includes “facts” or “factoids” that are either questionable ( Debbie Wosskows “would you share…” piece) or surprising (Ros Altmann’s assertion that pension companies can ignore the new rules) or controversial (Which?’s stance supporting smart meters with an 18 year pay back).

On the last point, very little input from Conversations seems to colour Which?’s reports in the magazine. Smart meters a case in point. They often appear at the same time as a Conversation so cannot be part of the contribution. I wonder sometimes whether these conversations have any real value to Which?- other than being an interesting exchange of views and gleaner of knowledge.

Member

Hi Alfa and Malcolm, we’ll reach out to Prof. Elliott. I’m with you that it would be great to have more replies from the authors and I’ll continue to make it my mission to make that happen.

Malcolm, just on your point on input from Convos not influencing mag reports. We could of course always do better, but this isn’t quite true. There are a few types of Convos, one of which are ‘fishing Convos’ where researchers are looking for your views to shape their investigation/mag article, or even whether they should be covering the issue at all. We don’t always flag these up as ‘fishing Convos’, as it can take a long time for them to turn into articles. However, I will ask researchers to make this clearer in their posts if they’re able to.

Another type of Convo is one that follows from the magazine, where we publish links in the mag to promote members to come and debate issues here on Convo.

This is one of those, and the smart meter debate was another. That’s not to say your views haven’t been part of the research of the article. I want to be very honest here – much of our work on smart meters is due to the comments made here. You are the reason we called on the Govt to halt the roll-out and also why we’ve spent so much time working the issue. And we have other smart meter reports planned, which is again directly inspired by your comments on Which? Convo.

It is my goal and the goal of many others at Which? that your views influence our work, campaigns, research. What we’re not very good at doing is telling you that and sharing the huge influence you do make on a daily basis – I am putting that as an action point for me to make that better.

Member

I would hazard a guess that Which? Convo contributions are also read in places and by people of prominence a high repute.

Member

You’re spot on Beryl – companies, politicians etc read these debates, but they don’t necessarily tell you that they are! We’re sending them out all the time to contacts. I want to share this more often with you, so I will work to do that.

Member

Patrick, Thanks for your comments; they are reassuring. It ‘s easy to look at just one side of the picture, particularly if we have strong (-ish) views. I imagine many get a good deal of information and interest from these conversations – I find them illuminating on many topics that I would otherwise not have thought about.

Member

From reading the government’s response to the Elliott Review, it looks as if the issue of food fraud is being taken very seriously. I do hope so because we all need to know that food is properly described and safe to eat, irrespective of the price and where we buy it from.

Member

I just wish manufacturers would stop playing with their data about sugar fat content etc. Data never seems to marry up with the tin or package size purchased one has to recalculate the sugar or fat content before one really understand how much is in the tin/package….that is just cheap smoke ‘n mirror stuff to baffle the public as it looks ok until one works it out. As for leaving off anything of a certain small size and calling it trace is bordering on fraud. The bad practices around fiddling the content labelling and ever reducing package sizes/contents has got to stop….it is just hidden price inflation which I’m sure helps the RPI calculations ….inflation? what inflation?

Member

Personally for me, Probiotic yogurt is a total nonsense. Any natural yogurt when consumed daily will still give you enough cultures in it to soothe the system. Clearly those with a daily intolerance should take not, and to those who can’t take dairy, there are only a few alternatives, even though I would like to see my Soya based yogurts on sale in supermarkets.

Member
rob jones says:
19 November 2016

Joining this much later it is now clear that there is also a shortage of sheep’s milk due to demand for cheeses and yoghurt made from sheep milk increasing. That increase is I believe in part due to increasing numbers of the population who have developed an intolerance to cow’s milk protein specifically the cassein protein in A1 milk. Fortunately it is now possible to buy A2 milk which has a different cassein protein that many like me have found they can use without any effects. Demand for sheep’s milk may decline slightly as A2 becomes more widely recognised and used.
It is reassuring that cow’s milk was not found in any of the samples.