The horsemeat scandal of 2013 thrust into the mainstream media an issue that had long plagued the industry, albeit below the radar of the average consumer - the issue of food fraud. The problem is far more prevalent than many realise, with conservative estimates putting the annual cost of such deception at around $15bn globally, and research suggesting it affects around 10% of all commercially sold food products.
The scandal was a stark illustration of how loss of consumer trust in major supermarkets and food producers can have an enormous impact on corporations. A year after the initial reports, sales of frozen ready meals were down 6%, leading to the demise of several enterprises.
This, coupled with widespread media coverage and public indignation, has been a catalyst for change in the industry and positive steps have been taken to curb fraud.
Back in 2013, only two analytical methods were commonly used in laboratories to detect the content of meat products. These tests were designed to detect the presence of a fixed and very limited range of adulterants. In short, these tests could only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if asked about a particular meat species.
Prior to 2013 risk-profiling of product contamination would not have identified horsemeat as a likely risk so it generally wasn’t tested for. Naturally, that’s all changed. Not only is horsemeat very much on the radar of those screening for food fraud but so too are the vast number of other species from across the globe that could be used to adulterate mainstream meats or other foods.
The cost and practicality of detecting all potential contaminants using traditional methods was clearly prohibitive so new approaches were needed. The UK government upped the pressure by commissioning a report that ultimately recommended there should be zero tolerance in respect of food fraud and a greater focus on intelligence gathering. In order to prevent a similar scandal, the analytical testing methods available to support the industry needed to offer tighter controls over authenticity.
One big advance on existing detection methods is the application of Next Generation Sequencing to food fraud detection. These new diagnostics use techniques gleaned from the landmark mapping of the human genome to screen simultaneously for the DNA of no fewer than 22,000 different animal and plant species present in a sample.
Following the scandal, consumer awareness of food fraud had never been greater. Demand for food manufacturers to demonstrate the authenticity of their products has grown. The issue has remained on the agenda, with other high-risk products such as white fish being put under close scrutiny.
To ensure an industry-wide standard moving forward, it’s important that manufacturers and retailers continue to be vigilant. The technologies now exist to better support the industry and it is critical they are adopted. In this environment of intense scrutiny, those responsible for quality assurance will inevitably want to invest in the best possible detection methods.
Dr Mike Bromley is founder of Genon Laboratories