Arresting food fraud

UK food security researcher Chris Elliott is fighting back against criminal threats to the safety of the world’s food supply.

Chris Elliott
Chris Elliott

Sitting in the chilled counter at a supermarket, one beef burger looks pretty much like any other. The label may boast that it came from a happy free-range cow raised on organic pasture, but there’s no proof that the premium-priced patty isn’t a dollop of factory-farmed cheap ground beef or, worse yet, horse meat.

That knowledge vacuum is the challenge facing Chris Elliott, an internationally known food fraud researcher. He’s waging a war against criminals who adulterate food, pass off cheap meats as top cuts and even substitute one species for another.

“Food fraud is now recognized as being one of the big threats to the integrity of the global food supply,” says Elliott, an analytical chemist and director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Food fraud is now recognized as being one of the big threats to the integrity of the global food supply.”
—Chris Elliott

Whether it’s adding illegal chemicals to prepared meals, changing the use-by dates on packaging or passing off peanut oil as olive oil, food fraud is big business. It is so lucrative, in fact, that drug cartels in South America and organized crime in Italy are involved in counterfeit groceries.

Elliott declines to give a figure for the value of fraud—the data simply aren’t there, he says—but the World Customs Institute estimates the cost to the global food industry at $49 billion annually.

“The consequences of food fraud is first of all that ultimately the consumer pays for the fraud,” says Elliott. “Even in very complex supply chains, the cost gets passed on down the food chain.”

Fraud can also reduce the nutritional value of food—but more importantly, it can put consumers at risk of acute food poisoning or longer term “sub-acute” poisoning from illegal dyes and additives, he says.

In 2008, for example, China reported that at least six babies had died and an estimated 54,000 were hospitalized after milk and infant formula were adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine (used by fraudsters when selling watered-down milk because it masks the low protein content in tests used by the food industry).

New testing tactics for greater speed, accuracy

Elliott’s interest in food fraud goes back to 1986, when he began analyzing veterinary drug residues in livestock for the UK government. He shot into the limelight as the head of the UK inquiry into the 2013 horse meat scandal—the discovery that horse was present in frozen burgers sold in some of Europe’s leading supermarkets. Today Elliott works closely with the industry as director of his university’s ASSET Technology Centre in Belfast, developing new analytical tools and refining old ones that will help regulatory food safety inspectors, retailers and food manufacturers lead the battle against food frauds for decades to come.

His researchers are working in a wide range of areas, including trying to speed up the tests for dioxins, industrial pollutants that can contaminate food. Existing tests for dioxins take several weeks, but Elliott’s goal is an accurate rapid dioxin test that gives results the same day. His team has found a group of metabolites—byproducts of metabolism—that appear to indicate when food has been exposed to higher-than-normal levels of dioxins. These biomarkers are common signs of dioxin contamination in a range of species and can be identified quickly using mass spectrometry, an analytical technique where molecules are converted into ions that can be sorted and measured according to their shape and charge, says Elliott.

Using metabolites to identify dioxins is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The horse meat scandal, for instance, was uncovered during DNA testing on supermarket frozen burgers by the Irish Food Standards Agency. The food industry is a relatively late adopter of the sort of DNA fingerprinting techniques common in police work and paternity cases, but these techniques are becoming invaluable for identifying meat substitution fraud, where one species is replaced with another. Using multiplex PCR (polymerase chain reaction), investigators are able to identify strands of DNA unique to horses—as well as those from cattle, pigs and other species—in a food product, even when that species makes up less than 0.5 percent of the total.

For other types of frauds, researchers are using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry—a technique widely employed to detect the presence of illegal additives in foods, such as the Sudan industrial dye added to chili powder in 2005, which triggered the biggest food recall in UK history. More than 470 products were recalled at a cost of US$150 million, while 15 countries—including the United States, Canada, France and Greece—were also affected.

“A big advance here is in the ability to do multi-dye testing,” says Elliott. “There are now methodologies to detect 30-plus dyes using mass spectrometry.”

Fingerprints of the future

In the next 25 years these kinds of tests will become cheaper and easier and more automated, Elliott believes. And new tests will fill gaps where there are currently no reliable analytical tools.

One of the major areas ripe for development is “fingerprinting” of food in the field, he says, predicting that this technology will be in field tests in the United Kingdom within two to three years. Instead of using mass spectrometry techniques to identify a particular trait—such as the presence of an illegal dye—fingerprinting looks at the entire molecular composition of a foodstuff. That makeup is influenced by a host of factors including the climate, the acidity of local rain and the soil type, and will vary according to where a plant or animal was grown.

Unlike conventional mass spectrometry, fingerprinting is non-invasive. Using an infrared scanner, which works by exciting the molecules in the sample and then measuring their reaction, an inspector should be able to scan a sample of grain in a warehouse, download the results to a tablet and then compare the data with a central library before coming back with a match.

“We are doing some of the pioneering work at my lab, and we can tell the difference between wheat grown in Canada from wheat grown in China or the UK or Ukraine based on the entire molecular signal,” he says.

All this technology will be needed as fraud becomes more prevalent, says Elliott, especially because of the growing demand for processed and luxury food from China, India and other emerging economies.

“The middle classes [there] don’t trust their own food supply systems and will pay extra for Western branded food,” he says. “The big issues will be about things such as counterfeiting—so you think you are buying Danone instant formula in China but it’s actually counterfeit.”

The emerging technology will also be embraced by the United Kingdom’s new Food Crime Unit, a body set up following Elliott’s review in the horse meat scandal, published in 2014. His review bemoaned the lack of food crime expertise within existing UK law enforcement agencies and warned that the aggressive buying practices of major retailers—and the squeeze felt by suppliers as they are forced to sell below market price—increased the risk of food crime.

But even as technological and law enforcement solutions emerge, the counterfeiters will raise their game, Elliott believes. “The people who perpetuate fraud will always look to see what measures are in place to stop them, and they will look for countermeasures,” he says. “It’s always about trying to keep one step ahead of the technology.”

David Derbyshire

David Derbyshire is a freelance environment and science writer based in Winchester, United Kingdom. He is a former environment editor of the Daily Mail, and his freelance work has been published in The Guardian, The Times, and other newspapers.

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