Can consumers be confident that what they’re buying really is sourced from the location on the label?
Whether the product is apples, tomatoes, pork, chicken or whisky; Food Forensics on the Norwich Research Park can determine not just the country of origin, but potentially 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, it’s 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.”
An element is described by the number of protons in its nucleus; carbon for example always has six protons. However, the same element can have different numbers of neutrons (uncharged particles) at its core, resulting in slight variations in mass. These variants are called isotopes. Food Forensics studies the relative amounts of different stable-isotopes to determine where a product comes from.
Due to chemical and physical processes, natural products from different locations on earth have different stable-isotope profiles or ‘fingerprints’. For example 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. Food Forensics is able to take advantage of this natural variation and use it to confirm that a products origin matches what it says on the label.
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 identify 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 in 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.
“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.”
If you are interested in verifying the origin of produce or proteins and would like to find out more information or submit a sample for testing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.foodforensics.co.uk.