The European food industry has been shaken to its core by a scandal involving the contamination of processed beef products with undeclared horsemeat. The scare has undermined consumer confidence in the reliability of the food chain and highlighted the vulnerability of a complex and highly integrated system that is primarily based on trust. Katy Askew asks what the food industry can do to avert future contamination issues.

The horsemeat scandal sweeping Europe has raised some fundamental questions about the security of our food supply. What started as a local recall of value beefburgers in the UK has widened to encompass much of Europe, drawing in private-label and branded manufacturers alike.

After a month of headlines and high-profile product recalls, consumer confidence in processed foods has hit new lows. Indeed, according to Nielsen data out yesterday (19 February), sales of frozen beefburgers have slumped by around 40% in the UK and Ireland. This extreme level of decline raises serious concerns that the issue could do long-term damage to the processed meals category as a whole.

The uncomfortable truth is few European food manufacturers and retailers can say with absolute certainty that their products are free of horsemeat. Even groups as prominent as Nestle – a firm that espouses exacting standards and best practice in procurement and supply chain management – have been forced to withdraw products.

While horsemeat does not present a threat to human health, parallels with previous more harmful contamination scares, such as melamine in Chinese infant formula, are stark. The need to tighten security in the food supply system and eliminate weak links in the chain in order to avoid future – and potentially more damaging – contamination incidents is clear. How increased security can be achieved is less obvious.

The food industry relies on a testing system to identify potential contaminates entering the chain. However, this approach has a fundamental flaw: it is impossible to test every product for every possible contaminate. As a result, a testing approach must be risk-based – relying on information gathered on the reliability of suppliers.

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According to Zolfo Cooper’s forensic litigation director Paul Huck, the first step in tightening security down the supply chain is to improve the quality of information available to food manufacturers by getting to “know your suppliers”.

“As everyday commerce moves from local to international suppliers, advanced due diligence before you start working with anyone is a must.,” he suggests. “Then constant feedback and assessment of suppliers must be built into contract management. Suppliers should act as an extension of your business and be treated as such.”

Increased transparency down the supply chain could also be encouraged by measures like the establishment of a “whistleblowing hotline”, Huck adds.

One retailer who can certainly be said to “know its suppliers” is the UK’s Morrisons – who operates a vertically integrated supply chain that sees it manufacture a majority of its own products almost from farm to fork.

“We are a vertically integrated retailer and that means we make a lot of the fresh food in our supermarkets and that gives us much more control of the provenance of our food. We believe in keeping it simple – we buy cattle direct from farmers, and the meat goes through our own abattoirs and meat processing plants before arriving at our stores,” a spokesperson for the UK’s fourth-largest supermarket group tells just-food.

However, the spokesperson emphasises, Morrisons is “not complacent” as not all of its supply chain is vertically integrated. “That’s why we are carrying out tests now.”

Even if the net provided by the risk-based testing system is tightened, Dr Andrew Thompson of consultancy firm GlobalData suggests the tests to establish meat adulteration themselves are also limited in scope.

Of the DNA analysis methods currently available, the Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) is considered the gold-standard approach to checking from which species or breed a particular meat came from, he explains. However, RT-PCR analysis can only detect the presence of a preselected species rather than the existence of any unexpected species.

Thompson says a number of new technologies are being developed with potential applications in the food industry. For example, raman spectroscopy, which utilises a light emission phenomena, can be used to differentiate between several different types of meat without removal of packaging, he suggests.

“Raman spectroscopy depends on high-powered lasers, and this has previously confined the technique to the laboratory, but the emergence of cheaper, compact diode-based lasers has seen a few portable devices emerge… which are used in specialist applications, such as law enforcement or at border controls,” Thompson explains.

“By incorporating such an approach into the existing compact point-and-shoot devices, there could be a revolution in the food testing market, allowing non-destructive, reagent-free testing of foods at all stages of the supply chain.”

Existing tracking technologies such as RFID can also be developed to allay consumer fears about traceability, Matthew Knight, strategic technologies director at digital technology firm Carat, tells just-food. Food companies are increasingly turning to mobile technologies to communicate provenance, he adds.

“There are numerous technologies which allow animals to be traced through a production process, in fact, one of the oldest uses of RFID (the same technology embedded in our Oyster cards, or NFC smartphones that allow us to touch in to systems) is in tracking animals through farming,” Knight says.

“Where farmers and mass animal farming support systems to track animal to product, data becomes available for logistics, retailers and consumers. And then consumer perspectives can be built on top of packaging and products to allow a purchaser to see which farm their product came from. Many producers are already putting information about the food provenance printed on their packaging, or using tools like QR or mobile web to share content about a product’s life cycle.”

However, Knight concedes these technologies rely upon “true and honest data… They are only as accurate as the information put into the system.”

As allegations fly around Europe that horsemeat entered the food chain due to deliberate fraud and adulteration, the food industry will undoubtedly be looking to develop more advanced – and tamper-proof – forms of tracking. “In more future facing scenarios, radioactive tracers or biological markers could be used to track from animal to product, and ultimately DNA sequencing techniques will become cheaper and easier to use for adhoc testing along the production line, Knight predicts.

However, all of this comes at a price.

Mikko Soirola, VP of IT integration and supply chain specialists Liaison Technologies, suggests that there are various specialist service providers that can already certify and track ingredients through each point of the food chain, providing “full visibility” and leaving “an audit trail without holes”.

In his view, on of the primary reasons that few companies will invest in such services is the pressure to keep costs down in order to deliver cheap food to consumers. “They are seeking efficiencies in their supply chain… It is a highly competitive market, food is a commodity. So you need to be price conscious at every step. Because of this manufacturers and retailers will often outsource production and sourcing to countries that have lower wage costs. But they can’t outsource the risk. They can’t outsource the responsibility.”