Quality matters: using technology to meet the demand for traceable, authentic foods

Peter Morgan, technical product specialist at Elementar UK, explains how elemental analysis can help to improve transparency and quality control in the food supply chain. 

The diversification of global dietary habits and food supply chains has been a continuous trend over the course of human history, but it’s arguably never happened more rapidly than it has in the last few decades.

Free trade and international migration have exposed local ingredients, recipes and specialist foodstuffs to a larger global market than ever before, giving diners and food shoppers access to an expansive choice of different food options. Accordingly, consumer expectations of product quality have also risen, making it more important than ever that the origins and composition of every item can be confidently verified.

As a result, technology for the tracing and authentication of foodstuffs are becoming essential tools for global food sector businesses like never before - putting vital techniques such as elemental analysis in the spotlight.

Food authentication becomes a priority

Consumers have always been very careful about what they choose to eat, but this view has never been more prevalent than it is today. Modern diners are choosy about the authenticity and composition of their foodstuffs, looking beyond price and even nutritional value to focus on broader concerns such as farming practices, origins and artisanal traditions.

A survey of more than 800 people conducted by Elementar UK in 2017 revealed that 84% of respondents said they check where their food has come from, either all, most or some of the time. It also found that 66% are very or quite concerned about where their food has come from, while 68% said the origin of food is very or quite important when making purchasing decisions.

The poll also indicated that 80% believe all food labelling should state exactly where it has come from, while 52% said they would not buy a product again if they found out it had been mislabelled.

These trends are likely to be influenced by increased consumer focus on issues such as ethical sourcing and specific dietary requirements, as evidenced by the rising demand for gluten-free foods and allergen labelling. Additionally, public attention surrounding high-profile mislabelling scandals - such as the infamous 2013 incident in which multiple UK and European supermarkets were found to be selling beef products that contained large quantities of horse meat - has shed light on just how important it is to maintain a transparent and fully traceable food supply chain.

How is Brexit expected to affect this?

Uncertainty surrounding Brexit is likely to bring an additional level of complexity to the authentication of food products, and the manner of the UK’s departure from the European Union is set to have a significant bearing on the transparency of food supply chains for British businesses.

Currently, UK foodstuffs are safeguarded by European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) rules, which are designed to legally protect the authenticity of food products that are uniquely a product of their region or a particular manufacturing process, such as Stilton blue cheese, Jersey royal potatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or Scotch whisky. 

Leaving the EU means British businesses and consumers will no longer be protected by PDO regulations, potentially resulting in an influx of generic replicas to the market, which would bring down the value of the premium product.

Although there are ways in which this could deliver increased competitiveness and lower prices for consumers, such deregulation could also lead to reductions in product quality, the erosion of traditional manufacturing methods and an overall loss of confidence in the traceability of foods sold in the UK. This is why it remains vital that the UK Government is able to come up with a legal solution for food protection, backed up by rigorous testing protocols, that can ensure consumer demand for high-quality, authentic food products continues to be met.

How can elemental analysis offer clarity?

Given the public appetite for transparently sourced food and the growing difficulty of ensuring this traceability is consistently maintained, tried-and-tested approaches to food authentication are likely to become more prominently used than ever before.

In this regard, elemental analysis remains one of the most potent tools in the arsenal of food producers and testers. Simply measuring the total protein content of food items provides important information that can affect the properties of a product; for example, protein content can influence the properties of dough, the taste of beer, foam formation, or the differentiation between regular starch and gluten-free starch.

Similarly, by using stable isotope analysis to look at the unique isotope signature of foodstuffs, it becomes possible to detect whether they have been fraudulently adulterated with low-quality additives, or distinguish premium and protected food from their generic counterparts. This method can also be used to confirm the use of organic farming practices, or to determine the geographic origin of a product by analysing its isotopic ‘fingerprint’.

None of these innovations are new but, at a time when consumer interest in food quality is rising and international labelling laws are potentially under review, they have never been more crucial. They are essential in providing the public with the information they desire about the foods they buy; in an uncertain regulatory environment, they also help to protect the reputations of premium suppliers, while safeguarding the future of specialist and traditional foods.

When considering the technology that plays the biggest role in safeguarding food quality, elemental analysers may not immediately come to mind, but they will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in helping consumers and producers alike to have confidence in the quality of their food.

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