Waitrose is piloting East of England technology that can validate the provenance of British food products – potentially right down to the local region where it was grown.The ‘environmental fingerprint’ technology pioneered by Food Forensics at Norwich Research Park can be used for fruit, meat or alcohol. Food Forensics was formed in 2011 to protect consumers as well as genuine producers and processors from fraudulent labelling.
The technology had been established for many years but not been converted into a commercial solution. Alison Johnson, director of Food Forensics, said: “Our aim is to protect the selling point of British farmers and growers. The UK is less than 60 per cent self-sufficient for food and for some products less than 20 per cent. For consumers who want to buy British, it’s important they can trust their suppliers.”
Alan Wilson, technical manager for agronomy at Waitrose Supermarkets, has been involved in testing Food Forensics’ technology with some of the company’s own British suppliers. He said: “As a leading British supermarket, we use every means at our disposal to understand food authenticity. This not only helps build consumer confidence, but also strengthens relationships with our British suppliers.
“When we hear about new methods that might help us prove the authenticity of British products, such as is offered by Food Forensics, then that’s certainly a bit of science we want to investigate further.”
So how does the technology work? Alison Johnson said: “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.”
Food Forensics studies the isotope ratios of five different elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur. Using five elements means the company can identify the geographical source of a food product with incredible precision.
Johnson said: “We generally start by comparing the product’s isotope profile or ‘environmental fingerprint’ against our known samples in our British database.
“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 has an extensive database of British products against which it can test and continually adds to it. The company is also collaborating with scientists from across the Park on a range of topics. Johnson said: “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.”
• Image courtesy – Waitrose