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Food Fraud – From Fish to Herbs, is anything we eat what we think it is?

We all eat food, and quite often we don’t know what it is or where it came from.  Supply chains have become very complex.  Every time you have a transaction in the supply chain, there’s another opportunity to cheat.

The competitive nature of the food business means that operators work on very small profit margins and corners are being cut – there’s no doubt about it – in relation to safety, quality and integrity.

Researchers at the Institute for Global Food Security, at Queen’s University Belfast, investigate fraud, adulteration and contamination of food that can happen to almost any edible commodity that you care to think of.

Their research focuses on consumer confidence in the authenticity of all food products and any weaknesses in food supply networks which could have implications for food safety and public health.

Behind the laboratory doors, at the Institute for Global Food Security, a short bell rings: a warning that an electrical current is about to pass through the laser knife that one of the researchers holds in her hand. She uses the laser knife to score a fillet of fish, leaving a burnt stripe.  Machinery next to her, is analysing the smoke that rises from the lasered tissue

This process involves a technique known as rapid evaporative ionisation mass spectrometry (Reims), and the computer can identify the smoke’s unique “molecular fingerprint”. This £500,000 machine, together with another £5m-worth of equipment at the Institute, enables Queen’s University to be at the forefront in the battle against food crime, with their world-leading facilities.

After comparing the fish’s “fingerprint” against a library of species profiles, the computer presents its verdict. This time it’s not guilty: “cod”, reads the screen. But just as often, such tests will reveal fraud — cod mixed with something cheaper, whiting perhaps, or a different species entirely.

Professor Chris Elliott, is one of the institute’s leading researchers and an international expert on food integrity. Commenting on fish fraud, Chris added;

“Norway and Russia dominate the world’s fishing industry — they invested heavily and built a huge number of these factory ships. Now, what happens to that fish?”


Pic: Professor Chris Elliott

“What they do is what’s called ‘H and G’ — they take the head off and cut the guts out. Then they take all of those fish to another country. The vast majority of filleting of fish happens in China because they employ tens of thousands of women to fillet the fish.”

Next, the fish is frozen into 7.5kg blocks and shipped to South Korea, “because it has the world’s largest cold stores. They have massive cold stores, the size of Wembley Stadium. The buyers go to South Korea and traders will come and buy different amounts in different commodities of fish, and sell them on to other traders and then sell them into companies.”

It is after the fish is bought in these blocks that the supply chain control is lost. So a fish that was “caught 50 miles off the north coast of Scotland has been to China, has been to South Korea, and probably been to a couple of countries in between. What arrives back in a port in Scotland is a 7.5kg block of fish and you’re told, ‘That’s cod.'”

Professor Elliott led the investigation into the UKs horsemeat scandal of early 2013, which sent shockwaves across the food industry. Three years on, Chris shares his views on progress that has been made since the scandal;

“I have retained quite a bit of contact with many areas of the food industry who are working towards trying to understand their vulnerability to food fraud and develop measures to prevent their exposure to it. The food industry itself has set up a number of important mechanisms for sharing information on suspected food fraud that simply would not have happened before the horsemeat scandal.”

In Chris’ opinion “the issue is being taken a lot more seriously and this is without doubt the correct approach.”

“There’s now much more effort from people to understand their supply chains, where they’re trying to get their materials from and what the risks from fraudulent activity might be,” says Elliott.

According to Elliot two drivers of food fraud are opportunity and market conditions, especially crop failure as it makes the replacement of expensive foods with cheaper ingredients more appealing to criminals. By way of example, he has highlighted how six common food products, including infant formula, guacamole and chorizo, could be at risk of food adulteration.

The big problem when the horsemeat scandal broke was that no one was quite sure who was responsible for dealing with it, says Elliott. “It was a battle between different police forces and government departments and it took two to three months for the responsibility to get assigned, and if you give criminals two to three months to get away you’re not going to catch too many of them.” 

Today, it is very clearly the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency and its newly formed Food Crime Unit. It works with police forces across of the country, with Europol, and with the Food Fraud Network, which links food safety authorities across Europe.

At Queen’s University, their approach is to try to identify the contamination in the food supply chain as early as possible. Researchers and students work very closely with industries to look at their supply chains so that whenever they put materials into the food supply chain themselves they can have a high degree of confidence that they are not contaminated.

The role of the Institute for Global Food Security, is to provide “the unbiased opinion,” said Elliott – “the governmental agencies have one particular line they follow, and the food companies are following something completely different. We are really sitting in the middle and trying to listen to what everybody says.”

The ability to provide safer food for consumers by the use of state-of-the-art monitoring tools is a major research driver. The power of these tools has helped to increase food safety while reducing the need to use out of date animal based bioassays.  

Study a Food Science Degree at Queen’s University Belfast

Queen’s University Belfast offer students the unique opportunity to study food related degrees, learning from research-active experts at our internationally recognised Institute for Global Food Security. Our degree programmes cover food security, safety, nutrition, integrity, science and much more.

Queen’s has been rated No.1 for Food science, based on research intensity, (REF 2014).

Undergraduate study pathways include:

This degree programme is about gaining the knowledge and understanding of three key areas in relation to food production and consumption. The subjects studied are wide ranging and include food biochemistry, chemistry, commodities, quality and safety, fundamental and clinical nutrition, human physiology, diet and health, and much more.

This unique food science qualification combines BSc and Masters-level study and allows students to develop their subject to a high level, experiencing cutting-edge technologies involved in food research. The subject is underpinned by a scientific understanding of food, such as its properties and composition, production and manufacture, testing and regulation, interaction with the human body, and much more.

Postgraduate Opportunities Include:

This Master’s degree, concentrates on developments in analytical approaches to monitor and regulate food safety, authenticity and security. Core topics covered will include food authenticity and traceability, chemical/biological hazards in animal feed and human food, and current & emerging analytical technologies to prevent food safety incidents.

Ideal for those already working in industry, this course is completed entirely online, via distance learning. It comprises of modules focused on food safety and health, global food legislation, analytical methods for food security and food integrity. The course is particularly suitable for those working in the agri-food industry who wish to develop their knowledge to a higher level.

Get in Touch
If you have a question about any of our Food Science degrees, please contact us by emailing: askmhls@qub.ac.uk or visit our website for more information.

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This article was sponsored by Queen’s University Belfast ,a world-class academic reputation combining innovation and excellence in research and education with its leadership role in the community. This tradition of excellence provides a firm foundation for Queen’s forward-looking and confident Vision for the Future, a blueprint which will secure its position as a global player in higher education. Queen’s is at the heart of the local community. Its “leading” role can be seen in many ways. The University is a training ground for the professions, a patron of the arts, and a driving force in wealth and job creation. Queen’s is working to build on this role and to ensure that its students – the leaders of tomorrow’s society – leave the University ready to take advantage of all the opportunities life can offer. ‘Inspiring’ recognises that education must be life-changing, stimulating and fulfilling. Queen’s students and staff work in an environment which allows them to unleash their full potential. ‘Delivering’ underlines the University’s pledge to keep its word and to deliver the highest quality experience for its staff and students.

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