April 18, 2013 by IPAlchemist
On 14th March 2013 the IP Alchemist attended a panel discussion hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, entitled “Stop Horsing Around with Our Food”; the goal being to “tease out the issues to be tackled” in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal and the progressively decreasing amounts of resources made available for food sampling and analysis.
The event took the form of a brief talk from each panellist followed by a question-and-answer session. The panel of industry experts consisted of:
- Dr Derek Craston, UK Government Chemist, Chief Scientific Officer at LGC and chair of the panel.
- Gerald Heddell, Director of Inspection, Enforcement and Standards Division at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
- Dr Mark Woolfe, member of the RSC’s Analytical Methods Committee and formerly of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
- Liz Moran, President of the Association of Public Analysts.
Dr Craston began proceedings by indicating that any food analysis or testing only usually takes place in relation to known issues, after a problem had been brought to light. Current resources are insufficient to test in areas where no issue has been identified.
Dr Woolfe stated that he was “not that surprised” that food adulteration had taken place and that he was only surprised by the scale of the issue. He said that the food chain had become longer, because price pressure from supermarkets led suppliers to source food production from abroad. He added that any supply chain should be as short as possible to avoid any untoward contamination.
Gerald Heddell looked at parallels with regulation of medical products. He stated that the answer cannot lie solely in testing but requires regulation of the supply chain: a poorly-regulated supply chain could not be compensated for by any amount of testing or analysis. He reported that 60% of adults have changed their shopping habits in the wake of the scandal, indicative of a collapse of confidence in the sector as a whole.
Liz Moran, of the Association of Public Analysts, painted a rather bleak picture of the decline of the UK food analysis system which is currently “in the eye of the storm” with 30% of the UK’s food testing laboratories having closed over the last few years resulting in a significant loss of expertise. She went on to argue that labs need to be able to react quickly to problems that present themselves and help the FSA. This issue was not routinely tested for before, but now labs were working round the clock testing beef for equine and porcine DNA. She stated that laboratories must be prepared for the next issue that presents itself and that regulation via paperwork would be insufficient due to possibility of forgery.
The floor was then opened to questions and contributions. Dr Chris Smart of Leatherhead Foods defended the industry and argued that food safety and traceability were taken very seriously. He pointed out that when fraud happens (of which there have been a number – orange juice, baby formula, olive oil) it can be hard to spot when it first happens, emphasising the importance of the integrity of the chain. When a question was raised regarding the acceptability of hiding cheap ingredients in processed food, he pointed out that one cannot simply “hide” ingredients and that doing so was illegal. He argued that there was nothing wrong with convenience food and that such products addressed a consumer demand. He pointed out that consumers have an expectation that products have good shelf life, but taking out emulsifiers, salt, and other ingredients can compromise this.
On the question as to whether cheaper and faster testing was being developed, Dr Woolfe outlined the immense number of issues surrounding food analysis, indicating for example that the presence of methanol in drinks is easy enough to detect whereas determining the geographic origin of meat is far more challenging.
One enquiry which aroused much interest from the panel was the question of how sensitive and specific the tests for horse meat were. Liz Moran immediately indicated that the last thing any lab would want to do is report a false positive result, and indeed that no lab would declare anything without undertaking repeat measurements. She went on to indicate that ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay) tests are sensitive to 1% and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing is sensitive to just 0.01 %, posing a further question as to what exactly constitutes an acceptable limit, pointing out that detection of equine DNA is not the same thing as establishing that the meat is horse meat as such.
Mark Woolfe pointed out that surveys and investigation come from intelligence – often from within the food industry itself, while Gerald Heddell re-iterated that testing cannot rule out all risk and that supply chain management is also key.
Ms Moran understandably criticised cuts to testing labs. When questioned, she explained that there have been cuts to DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) but that local authorities also have responsibility for testing. The number of samples taken by local authorities has been declining in recent years and some have reported no testing at all to the FSA. Naturally these cuts were implicated in the fact that the horsemeat problem did not first come to light in the UK.
The IP Alchemist very much enjoyed this evening and thanks the RSC for putting it on in a very short timescale. He did however feel that each of the speakers pretty much said what you might have them to say, given their current or previous affiliation, and pretty much the same went for the audience contributions (where their loyalties were stated). Cuts were blamed where expected, and the importance of consumer choice and demand were also emphasised by precisely those who would be expected as well.
The IP Alchemist would like to thank his Twitter interlocutors, in particular @RSC_Comms, @chemical_ian, @melancholysci, and @chiara_ceci for enlivening the evening, and for creating a record on which this blog post could be based. The hashtag used for the event was #stophorsingaround. He is also enormously thankful to Fergus Tyrrell for assisting with the first draft of this report.
The event was webcast live, and there is a promise that the recording will be made available, but as at the posting time this has not yet occurred.