/ 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.