Fighting Food Fraud, Ensuring Food Safety
When horsemeat was discovered in a number of ground beef samples taken from Irish and British processors and supermarkets in January of 2013, it ignited a scandal across Europe. At the same time, it made Prof. Chris Elliott, Chair of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen's University Belfast, a familiar face in the media as the most prominent scientific expert commenting on the extent and implications of the scandal.
“Generally my day starts at around 5:00 a.m. and finishes about 11:00 p.m.,” said Elliott with a laugh. “I think I’ve been on twelve different TV shows now.”
The scandal has shined a public light on an issue Elliott has been studying for years.
“It's the globalization of food,” he said. “We now eat food and we don’t know quite often what it is and we don’t know where it comes from. Supply chains have become very complex. The competitive nature of the food business means that operators work on very small profit margins and corners are being cut – there’s no doubt about it – in relation to safety, quality and integrity.”
The Institute of Global Food Security has become a leader in addressing these issues.
Our research is dedicated to ensuring that the food delivered to people’s tables is safe and of high quality and authentic,” he said. “Our approach has been to try to identify the contamination in the food supply chain as early as possible. So we will go right back to the primary crops that are produced and we will try to identify any problems related to man-made or natural contamination. We work very closely with industries to look at their supply chains so that whenever they put materials into the food supply chain themselves they can have a high degree of confidence that they are not contaminated.”
The Institute occupies a unique position between the government and commercial food companies.
“What we are providing here is really the unbiased opinion,” said Elliott. “I describe it as being an honest broker. Because the governmental agencies have one particular line they follow, and the food companies are following something completely different. We are really sitting in the middle and trying to listen to what everybody says and explain that it is really complicated, what is going on. There are no simple answers. What’s to blame is the complexity of life now.”
Becoming a media celebrity wasn't what Chris Elliott had in mind when he joined Queen's University.
“I was recruited here in 2006 to try to reinvigorate agriculture and food science at Queen’s University,” he explained. “My colleagues and I decided that we would really move away from production-based science, which had previously been the focus, and concentrate on three pillars: food safety, food quality and food authenticity. And we’ve really built on it since 2006 to where we are now.”
"We want to build a 'food-fortress', ensuring everything we import is of the highest quality and that what we sell locally and internationally is also 100 percent safe, nutritious and authentic."
Over that time, the Institute has grown to 35 full-time academic staff, 30 postdoctoral researchers and around 50 Ph.Ds. Mass spectrometry has been an essential tool in their work.
“Our first purchase was a triple quad, and then a couple years ago we moved into time-of-flight mass spectrometry,” he said. “The reason for that was that we became very interested in this whole idea of non-targeted analysis. Triple quadrupole is a wonderful technology to detect what you want it to detect. The time-of-flight is a platform that can assist in looking for unknowns. That became quite a fascination for us here to see if we could start to find things that we didn’t know were actually present in our agricultural and food products.”
The research has been eye-opening to Elliott and his team.
“We have found so many things that we never knew existed. Really it’s been quite staggering,” said Elliott. “We are identifying quite a lot of metabolites, particularly metabolites that have a very high level of biological activity which have never been described in the literature before. Some of them are man-made and some of them are naturally occurring..”
From Farm to Lab Bench
Chris Elliott's journey to the study of food safety and integrity began, fittingly enough, on a beef cattle farm. He comes from a family of farmers in Northern Ireland and worked on a farm as a child. However, his earliest scientific inspiration came a bit farther from home.
“There was a very famous marine biologist called Jacques Cousteau,” Elliott recalled. “He was one of the great pioneers, asked a lot of questions and brought biology and exploration together. I always thought he was a fascinating character. I never missed his television programs.”
That interest in scientific inquiry is complemented by Elliott's love of competition.
I’m a sports fanatic. So if I’m not participating, I’m watching,” he said. “Even though I’m way too old, I still play soccer and I still play squash. I go out running a couple times a week. I’ve had people tell me I’m the most competitive person they have ever met..”
These two impulses continue to drive Chris Elliott as a researcher and teacher.
“I think in science, as I tell a lot of my students and postdocs, 95% of what you try will not work,” he said. “You really have to strive to get that 5%.”
Strive, he has. Prof. Elliott has published more than 230 papers in the field of detection and control of chemical contaminants in agri-food commodities. He has coordinated one of the world's largest research projects in this area, and coordinates another major EU research project (QSAFFE) that deals with contaminant issues within the animal feed supply chain. He is also the director of the ASSET Technology Centre and a co-founder of the International Drug Residue School (SARAF) in Nantes, France. He received a Winston Churchill Fellowship in 1993, and is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Biology.
However, Chris Elliott sees his personal accomplishments serving a larger goal.
“What we’re trying to do is produce the ‘food leaders’ of the future,” he said. “If we can produce as many high-quality graduates for local food industries, they will innovate in a way that brings more credibility to the quality and safety of our food produced here. That’s the real driving force.”
March 24, 2016
From meat to spices, is anything we eat what we think it is?
The Financial Times visits Belfast's Institute for Global Food Security headed by Professor Chris Elliott.
Read the article:
April 6, 2016
Seven of twelve dried oregano samples tested by an Australian consumer watchdog contained other ingredients, including olive and sumac leaves.
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In July 2014, the UK government released Professor Elliott's recommendations for protecting the integrity of the UK’s food supply network.
Read the Report