Food Safety: do we know what’s in our food?

9 Jul 2014

On the evening of 25 June, nearly 40 people gathered at Reading Science and Technology Centre for the latest event held jointly with SCI's Food Group, Acumentia and Vitalsix, on the topic of Food Safety and Authenticity. Dr Ellen Norman of RSSL opened the presentations with some historical background to food fraud, covering historical law, and early attempts to control adulteration. Ellen then moved onto modern day fraud, and highlighted several areas of concern from over-use of illegal additives, through GMO to the issue of high value foods where opportunities arise for misrepresentation such as olive oil. She ended with four conclusions – we have to think like a fraudster, there must be an ongoing search for new analytical tools, food safety is the priority, the food supply chain will continue to be complex to meet the needs/desires of the modern consumer.

Barbara Hirst, (RSSL), followed with a look at DNA methods for detection. Amongst other things, DNA can be used for meat fish speciation, for allergen detection, for basmati rice authenticity, for GMO detection and for cattle parentage. DNA methods have high sensitivity, and can work in different food matrices, but are expensive, need trained staff and there are questions re the accuracy and repeatability. Barbara was heavily involved in the investigation into 'Horsegate' and she discussed some of the issues surrounding sampling and testing.

Lastly Dr Michael Walker of (LGC) talked about Food Allergens- Sabotage and Fraud. Michael gave a general introduction to the action of IgE mediated food allergy, and then covered three high profile cases which had hit the courts over the last 10 years or so where allergens had been involved. Firstly the deliberate contamination of a nut-free food manufacturer's site by an aggrieved engineer. Michael explained how the company involved had had to recall many millions of pounds worth of food, and in spite of a fairly convincing amount of evidence, the said engineer was found not guilty because of the methods used to gather traces of peanut from the engineer's clothing. Although the career of the engineer was no doubt ruined, the food industry learnt a lot about evidence gathering and site security. Next, Michael talked about Baby Egan who died because of confusion at his nursery regarding his cow's milk allergy. In this case the nursery was found guilty, and there have been widespread changes to procedures in nurseries around the UK as a result. Lastly Michael presented the case of a fatality at a Sikh wedding of a man with an egg allergy. Eggs are not used in Sikh cookery, and so the guest thought he was safe to eat the foods. However more guests attended than were initially expected so the caterer bought in extra supplies of a dessert which it is believed did contain egg. Sadly the guest had not brought his Epipen with him, assuming he was in a safe environment. The caterers were found guilty and fined heavily, but note that at the time it was not a requirement for allergens to be labelled (or otherwise notified) in catering or foodservice occasions. This will change in December 2014.

The evening ended with light refreshments and an opportunity to network.

Andy Kerridge
Chair, Food Group

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