Much of our food in the UK is sourced via often-complex supply chains involving numerous producers and processors from around the world. Unfortunately this can lead to illicit and/or unethical practices as some food ingredients may be contaminated by adulterants or obtained from undesirable sources. Recent examples include the use or horsemeat instead of beef in burgers or the use of toxic dyes as food colouring agents.
As part of an innovative collaboration with IMSPEX Diagnostics Ltd, a diagnostics company based in Abercynon, scientists at the University of South Wales are now working on a high-tech solution to these problems. The project is directed by Professor Denis Murphy and is funded by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS 2) from the European Social Funds through the Welsh Government.
The lead researcher is PhD student Kirstie Goggin who is mainly focusing on developing new chemical and molecular technologies using a method called Ion Mobility Spectroscopy (IMS) for the rapid analysis of vegetable oils. These oils are found in over half of all items stocked in UK supermarkets, but it now seems that they may not always be completely authentic.
In one aspect of her work, Kirstie is aiming to develop rapid and simple methods to determine the geographical origin of palm oil – with a view to increasing traceability and sustainability within palm oil supply chains. For example, shoppers might wish to be reassured that palm oil, which is found in many foods including chocolate, ice cream and ready meals, is sourced from a certified sustainable producer and not from plantations created by chopping down tropical forests.
Kirstie is also working on the detection of adulterants in vegetable oils including palm. The aim here is to increase authenticity within supply chains, whilst protecting consumer health and confidence in the foods that they buy. For example, in early 2018 Swiss government scientists found that a carcinogenic dye called Sudan IV had been deliberately added to cheap colourless refined palm oil so that it could be sold as the high-value, vitamin-rich ‘red palm oil’.
To help with this research, the South Wales team has linked up with colleagues at one of the foremost agricultural universities and food research institutes in Europe, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and with several public and private sector partners in Malaysia, which is one of the major global producers of palm oil.
Project director Professor Denis Murphy said: “Food is such a precious part of everyday life, and indeed our culture, so we really need to do everything in our power to safeguard its purity, quality and environmental impact. Although many foods are now globally traded commodities with hugely complex supply chains, we are confident that by using modern scientific methods we can minimise or eliminate fraud and adulteration for the ultimate benefit of all”.