News & Updates

Can science help detect food crime?

Is the food we buy in Scotland actually what it says it is? Unfortunately we know sometimes this isn’t the case and consumers are being sold some products under false pretences.

The horsemeat investigation where beef was replaced by horse and pork meat hit the headlines in 2013. A more recent investigation by Western Isles Council and the Scottish Food Crime & Incident Unit discovered that over 80% of salt found in Hebridean Sea Salt did not come from the Hebrides, but was imported table salt.   This shows how wide the potential is for food crime or mislabelling, and all of us need to be more aware of this potential.

My colleagues at FSS in the Scottish Food Crime and Incident Unit, Scientific Advisers and other partners, including Crimestoppers, work together in the UK, and worldwide to prevent food crime, and make sure we have systems in place to detect and deal with it.

Having correct ingredient information on a product’s label is vital in helping check what is actually in it, where it has come from and that it is what it says on the label. But how can we be sure if there has been either accidental or deliberate mis-labelling?

There are a number of scientific methods being developed to authenticate food products and help combat food crime: Stable isotope ratio analysis, DNA and trace elements analysis:

  • Stable isotope ratio analysis looks at ratios of isotopes from elements (eg hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen etc.) found in food (eg meat).  This identifies the differences in the diet and water drunk by animals in Scotland and the rest of the world. This technique has also been used to identify the geographical origin of many types of food including wine, olive oil, oranges, honey, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, dairy products, eggs, seafood, and coffee.
  • DNA analysis looks at variations in the genetic code of food. This is used to identify the species of animal meat in a particular food (eg cow, sheep, horse, donkey, fish etc). Recent studies have also shown that it is possible to differentiate between different breeds of cattle and even mixtures of breeds. Problems can arise though if the quality of the DNA is poor.

 So getting back to the question in the title – the answer is yes - science can help to detect and deter food crime, but it goes hand in hand with food chain information and other intelligence.

We all have a part to play in stopping food crime - whether you are a member of the public or working within the food and drink sector.   You can report food crime anonymously by contacting the free and confidential Scottish Food Crime Hotline, which is operated in partnership with Crimestoppers, on 0800 028 7926, or contact us in confidence through our website.