‘Expect the unexpected’ when inspecting food, FERA tells industry following Elliott Review

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

UK government agency FERA is working on profiling techniques that look at foods holistically as opposed to searching for specific risks.
UK government agency FERA is working on profiling techniques that look at foods holistically as opposed to searching for specific risks.

Related tags: Horse meat, Food industry, Food

The food industry needs to take a holistic approach when examining supply chains and not just target specific contaminant risks, the UK government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) has said following the horse meat Elliott Review.

FERA, an agency of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said the food industry should detect whether products deviate from an agreed profile rather than targeting specific contaminants. For example, a beef burger manufacturer would have to measure that their product contains nothing more than the ingredients for a beef burger, instead of  searching for specific contaminants like horse meat.  FERA said it would create profiles for various food groups.

Published last week, the Elliott Review​ was produced by Queen's University Belfast’s Professor Chris Elliott at the request of DEFRA following the horse meat scandal of 2013.

Professor Elliott made eight recommendations in his report including putting consumers first, placing greater value on audits, enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on food fraud and verifying laboratory services.

Reacting to the findings, FERA’s Paul Brereton, coordinator of the EU Food Integrity Project, said: “The food industry needs to expect the unexpected. Key to the future is developing methods and systems that can detect change from the norm in food products and identify the source of that change.”

Meanwhile Matthew Sharman, head of FERA’s science, food quality and safety programme, told FoodNavigator this new approach was “not about making an assumption at the start”.

He also suggested that tighter inspection may be needed in times of shortages, a context which could lead to greater instance of food fraud.   

FERA said the report had highlighted a need for greater coordination between the industry, government, enforcement agencies, consumer groups and organisations such as itself. 

Making no assumptions​ 

Sharman said the nature of this profiling would depend on the food. Homogenous foods like cheese, milk or whiskey might be profiled by generic food group, while others may require more specific profiling by product.

He said in the future this would go beyond chemical to microbiological scrutiny. 

Considering context​ 

The wider context of natural events like failed harvests also needed to be considered, meaning extra attention may be needed at certain times depending on the availability of commodities. FERA will be working with European experts to see how “major changes in commodity prices and other global events can create the incentives for food fraud to take place”. 

“If a product is in short supply this can lead to price fluctuations and raw materials may be diluted,”​ Sharman said.   

Meanwhile, Brereton said: “While it is difficult to predict food fraud events our systems will identify future high risk areas based on events that are taking place today.”

Tools catching up with demand 

Sharman said these were “intense research projects”​ that could continue for years, but ultimately they were part of tangible changes seen following last year’s horse meat crisis. 

“There have been changes. The food industry is now fully aware of the risks to their businesses – now they need the tools to monitor that.” 

He added that firms would still have to conduct targeted monitoring to ensure products were within legal range for certain substances.  

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