In the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, can consumers be confident that what they are buying really is sourced from the location on the label?
Whether apples or avocado, pork or potatoes, watercress or whisky - a new company on the Norwich Research Park can determine not just the country of origin, but can potentially pinpoint the local region.
Alison Johnson, director of Food Forensics, explains the benefits of the technology:“Our aim is to protect the selling point of British farmers and growers. The UK is less than 60% self-sufficient for food and for some products less than 20%. For consumers who want to buy British, its important they can trust their suppliers.
“We carry out a process known as ‘stable isotope ratio analysis’ on the products we test. The result is similar to a fingerprint in that it shows a unique pattern that allows us to trace the true origin of the sample. Just like real fingerprints, these results cannot be falsified, so they are vastly more reliable than paperwork.
Isotopes are chemical elements with a slightly different mass from what would normally be expected. For example, carbon commonly has mass number of 12, but the element also has slightly heavier isotopes known as carbon-13 and carbon-14. Isotopes are sometimes associated with radioactive substances, but most isotopes do not fall into this category and Food Forensics looks only at non-radioactive (stable) isotopes.
Different geographic locations on earth have different stable-isotope profiles or ‘fingerprints’. In the waters of the oceans, the stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen are considered to be present in their natural amounts. However, in inland areas and high ground, the lighter isotopes are found in relatively large amounts, because the heavier isotopes fall from the sky in the form of rain much sooner, when the rain clouds are still near the coast.
Food Forensics studies the isotope ratios of five different elements, namely carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur. Using five elements means that the company is able to pinpoint the geographical source of a food product with incredible precision.
“We generally start by comparing the product’s isotope profile or 'environmental fingerprint’ against our known samples in our British database,” says Alison
“If the results are outside what we would expect for Britain, we can use stable isotope mapping to determine the most likely area it came from. We can then compare our results to the paper trail to ensure no fraud has taken place.
“These tests could also form part of routine due diligence checks at food packaging establishments that pack produce from a number of different countries.”
Food Forensics, based at the Norwich Research Park Innovation Centre, has an extensive database of British products against which they are able to test and continues to add to this database over time. The company is also collaborating with scientists from across the Park on a range of topics.
Alison adds: “We have started two different research projects, one with the Institute of Food Research on potatoes and one with the University of East Anglia looking at free-range versus ‘enriched-cage’ or colony-produced eggs.
“Norwich Research Park is a food-centric location and we are enjoying building new relationships and expanding our expertise.”