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?.