18 Apr 2013
The UK has seen a steady decline in funding and resources available for food sampling and analysis in the last decade. This means that the number of products that can be tested has fallen rapidly, which has led to a risk-based system where products are only tested when we already know there is a problem.
This way of testing makes it very unlikely that hidden contaminants will be found in food products sold in the UK. Incidents such as the recent horse meat scandal serve to highlight the limitations in the food testing currently being undertaken in the UK to detect food fraud.
There are only 17 Public Analysis laboratories left in the UK (excluding Scotland), and with one imminent closure, that will leave just 16. This figure has more than halved in 30 years - in the early 1980s there were 40.
There are currently 32 Public Analysts working in the UK and very few applicants for the MChemA (Mastership in Chemical Analysis) Public Analyst position. As some Public Analysts reach retirement, we may not have enough qualified people available to carry out the work required.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has made funding available in recent years to test food imported from outside the EU. Unfortunately, warnings from the Association of Public Analysts about food produced in the EU seem to have been ignored. The FSA provides some funding for emergency food analysis; and about £2m each year for nationally co-ordinated sampling analysis. This is equivalent to around 3p per head of population per year.
The FSA has also established the Food Fraud Database. It is an important tool for detecting emerging patterns in fraudulent activity. It also offers a source of information to local authorities to help with their investigations. The EC has set up the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed. It primarily acts as a tool to exchange information between competent authorities on consignments of food and feed in cases where a risk to human health has been identified, and measures have been taken, enabling member states to take any necessary action.
However not enough is being done to detect fraud for food being sold in the UK. It is particularly critical at a time when consumers are demanding cheaper food, and food producers are forced to source the cheapest raw materials. This often means that the supply chain is much longer, and it is sometimes impossible to trace food back to its sources. This also leaves more opportunities for fraud to occur at each link in the chain.
If a major contamination event were to occur with significant health effects, it could lead to major damage to the UK food industry. This could have a wider impact at a time when the UK government is trying to grow the sector to boost the economy.
It is clear that more needs to be done to minimise the potential damage to the UK food industry.
More funding needs to be made available to upgrade existing food laboratories' rapid screening analysis capabilities. More also needs to be done to improve laboratory technician training.
Introducing an additional accreditation standard above ISO 17025 for regulatory food analysis could also improve both regulatory and other food analysis.
Regular and formal liaison between relevant food analysis laboratories and the FSA, with respect to emergency analysis issues, could improve food laboratories capabilities to handle any major food contaminations incidents.
Prof K Clive Thompson