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Lab developing food authentication test methods

By Ahmed ElAmin , 08-Sep-2005

A UK-funded testing lab is developing a variety of gene-based, chemical and biological tests to determine food authenticity, a means for plants to determine whether they received the right ingredients.

Food authentication is essentially in determining where a product, say basmati rice, really comes from or whether it has been adulterated with contaminants or filled out with cheaper substances.

With increasing demands being made on food processors to label their products correctly, and the resulting expensive recalls when they do not, such testing methods have sparked interest in theindustry. Authenticity analyses are now an integral part of most food companies' quality systems so as to guarantee the authenticity of their products and protect their brands in line with currentlegislation.

Testing for allergens and ensuring products confirm to religious requirements are also important.

The UK's government's Central Science Laboratory (CSL) has been working on ways of checking that food is accurately labelled. The research is being funded mainly by the UK's Food Standards Agency,and in part by the EU as part of a campaign against food fraud, called Trace.

Much of its scientists research is being published in scientific journals and is available patent-free to commercial companies. However Heather (Hez) Hird, a molecular biologist at CSL, toldFoodProductionDaily.com that many EU companies are not large enough to afford the expense of a fully equipped laboratory.

More and more companies across the EU are sending samples to the CSL for testing.

"We are a European leader in this kind of research," she said. "We are seeing more and more companies sending us samples for testing."

A cost of £250 (€370) per sample, the testing is not cheap. In the past year much of the testing has focused on basmati rice under a programme started by the FSA, Hird said. Premium products,were consumers are paying a higher price for a special food, are the main focus of such authentication testing.

The study by the FSA found that nearly one in five packets at the retail level had more than 20 per cent of non-basmati rice. In one in 10 cases, the adulteration reached 60 per cent. As a resultthe British Retail Consortium ended up issuing a code of conduct governing the labelling of "basmati rice".

The CSL is also focusing on honey testing, especially on detecting the presence of a range of antimicrobials antibiotics. Honey is imported from a number of countries where the use of these drugsto prevent or cure disease in bees is permitted or access to unauthorised antibiotics is relatively easy, Hird said.

The presence of antimicrobials antibiotics is a concern not only because of their direct toxicity, but also because of their potential contribution to the build up of resistance to commonly usedhuman drugs.

There are also two ways of adulterating honey, both of which are designed to increase profit. The first method is to add high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar. CSL's sagacious scientists can detect this form of adulteration.

The second way to adulterate honey is to take high quality honey and blend it with lower cost imports. Up until now detection of this fraud has only been possible by highly skilled and specialisedmicroscopic pollen analysis.

Under Trace, the CSL is developing testing methods for the authentication of honey using chemical and biological techniques. The team is also developing tests to detect horse anddonkey meat in salami, and of beef being used to bulk up more expensive venison. The CSL has also developed a test to measure the proportion of haddock in a fish finger products.

Hird, who is in charge of the project, first developed a technique for testing whether chicken-based products had cheaper turkey mixed in.

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