“In the spring a food analyst’s fancy quickly turns to thoughts of authenticity” – began no great poem ever. However, this spring does see a number of conferences discussing the subject of food authenticity and how associated concerns can be addressed. This is certainly an indication that it remains one of the most significant issues to the public consumer, regulatory bodies, food manufacturers, food retailers and government.
Food authenticity testing is undoubtedly a branch of analytical chemistry that demands both attention and interest. The last 20 years have seen an unrivalled period in the development of analytical technology and instrumentation, with many applications available for food testing. This is not just tools to identify gross substitution such as horsemeat, whisky or olive oil. It is now quite possible to differentiate between Welsh or Scottish lamb, farmed or wild salmon, and pure or sweetened fruit juice. A mere hair from the tail of a cow may be enough to track its large-scale geographical movement over time. It is amazing, fascinating and inspiring.
So how does one access this remarkable technology?
In the UK that very ordinary question turns out to be a bit more complicated than might be hoped. There are laboratories in the UK that are at the forefront in the refinement of these techniques and the development of these applications. However, it would be fair to term those laboratories as centres of research rather than being particularly commercial. Commercial laboratories in the UK have relatively little capacity for food authenticity testing – certainly in terms of the advanced analytical chemistry highlighted above. Most of the results that are reported on UK samples that have been submitted for such complex testing will probably have been analysed in Germany or France. Most of the DNA analysis for meat species will probably end up in Europe, as will most of the generic and less complex authenticity testing.
Generally speaking this is not too much of a day-to-day problem. The UK routine food-testing market is genuinely competitive, but is dominated by a few large laboratories. A number of those are owned by large multi-national organisations which also own laboratories across Europe. These businesses tend to have well-organised internal systems, and samples can easily be moved throughout Europe to appropriate laboratory facilities. Even if testing capability is not available in-house, reputable third party subcontractors can readily be sourced across the continent.
The reasons behind this gap in UK testing capability are inevitably complex. However, it has been suggested that part of it may be down to how little money is spent on enforcement food sampling and analysis, including food authenticity testing. Countries such as Germany have many more times the funding available. There is therefore a viable long-standing testing market in Germany for complex food authenticity analysis. There are therefore suitably equipped and appropriately skilled testing laboratories in Germany. Therefore, it is much more efficient and cost-effective to send samples from the UK to Germany for testing. It would require a considerable change in current market conditions to set up equivalent, commercially justifiable laboratories in the UK.
Is the lack of UK capability in food authenticity testing something that is sustainable in the medium to long term? Might the practical efficiency currently in place be threatened by any imminent changes? It is a knotty one, that.