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It’s unclear how much of the food on supermarket shelves is fraudulently labelled.
This issue of food integrity was one of the main areas of focus at the Joint FAO/IAEA International Symposium on Food Safety and Quality: Applications of Nuclear and Related Techniques which was held from 10 to 13 November 2014.
Food integrity or the provenance of food, deals with whether food is actually as described on the packaging, contains all it claims, and only that, and originates from the stated country.
“In the [era of] global food supply that we have now, we often don’t know where our food comes from,” said Paul Brereton, a presenter at the Symposium, Coordinator of Food Research at the UK Food Environment Research Agency, and Coordinator of the Europe-wide project Food Integrity, which seeks to address many of the institutional deficiencies (such as the need for information sharing among countries, regulators and industry) that came to light during the horsemeat debacle.
“The only means consumers have of evaluating the food they buy is by looking at the labels. So the consumer needs to be able to trust what’s on the label. We don’t have reliable evidence [about the percentage of food that is fraudulently labelled]. We only have anecdotes and evidence we get when we find a problem.”
The key, says Brereton, is to find cost-effective and informative ways to test food integrity for industry use, and also to find robust analytical methods for use by regulators in legal proceedings.
Scientists working with the IAEA are looking at nuclear stable isotope analytical techniques to see if they can meet the needs of both industry and regulators.
Symposium participants discussed ongoing and completed research as well as ways to improve the analysis and tracking of food in ways that benefit regulators, inspectors, governments and the food industry.
Verification of food integrity/provenance isn’t just about safety, it is also important from a macroeconomic perspective.
G. Stewart Walker, Associate Professor of forensic, environmental and analytical chemistry at Flinders University in Australia, said, “Many countries rely on their food exports for their Gross Domestic Product, so they want to maintain the standards and to ensure that the food that they are producing is of the best quality.”
On the other hand, importers and consumers who buy impoted foods want to know that they are getting what they pay for.
Walker noted that the most effective approach to food integrity analysis is holistic, looking not just at what’s inside the package, but at the packaging itself.
“For example if we’re given some bottles of wine which were being sold as if they came from Australia, we do a holistic investigation. First we look at the label and find that the label’s got spelling mistakes. Then we look at the bottle and find that it was a dark coloured frosted glass, which is not used in Australian wines. We look at the cork and the closure and find that they have got the same name as the label, so they’ve gone to some trouble.
“But [all] that doesn’t mean that the wine is forged, it could be Australian wine but has been shipped over and put into local bottles with a local label. So we need to analyse the wine for the isotope ratio or the trace metal analysis to identify, by comparison to real Australian wines, that ‘No, this wine wasn’t from Australia’.
“The next challenge is to find if it’s not from Australia, where is it from? And to do that we need a global database of what [isotopic] signals you’d expect from wines from Chile or from Spain or Austria.
“Databases of isotopic and trace element signatures in food exist separately. And I think that’s something that’s coming out of this symposium – the need for people with different databases to get together and be able to integrate the databases so that we can do this sort of global comparison,” said Walker.
The FAO/IAEA International Symposium on Food Safety and Quality was attended by more than 300 scientists, laboratory analysts, policymakers, regulators and food producers from 93 countries, as well as representatives from the African Development Bank, European Commission, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, World Health Organization, the FAO and the IAEA.
There were eight main conclusions from the intense discussions:
- Nuclear and related techniques are key to ensuring the integrity of national and global food control systems. The application of isotopic measurements for food traceability and authenticity, nuclear and isotopic methods to detect and control food contaminants, and irradiation to control pathogens and insect pests, improve food safety and access to international trade.
- South/south cooperation and support from agencies such as FAO/IAEA are essential for the effective implementation of such systems.
- Any failure of food control systems impacts consumers. For example, 26 out of 28 EU Member States were affected by the horsemeat scandal. Good systems exist for ensuring food safety, but not for protecting against food fraud. Even the best food control systems need continuous improvement, and policymakers play a key role in this effort.
- Food safety is a vital component of global food security. A collaborative approach is required to develop and implement effective systems for food safety, and contribute to food security. Animal feed safety is an integral part of food production and safe food.
- Food provenance testing is an important part of the food industry’s efforts to bolster its reputation. It is necessary to make industry aware of the many techniques available and the benefits of applying them.
- Science-based food safety plans are important to build consumer confidence, and rapid alert systems are critical to warn consumers of threats to food safety.
- There is an urgent need for education and training in developing countries to enable them to implement monitoring and compliance with food safety standards.
- Active cooperation between government, private sector (producers, processors, distributers), academia and consumers is needed to ensure food safety.