New DNA test can help to fight food fraud – Food Safety Authority

Device to test beef and poultry likely to be rolled out across the EU

 Martin Higgins, chairman, FSAI and Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO, FSAI. Photograph:  Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic

Martin Higgins, chairman, FSAI and Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO, FSAI. Photograph: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic

 

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has developed a new DNA tool that will enhance the ability to fight food fraud. It enables the entire genetic content of a food to be revealed without any prior knowledge or suspicion of what may or may not be present in that food.

Being able to scan the entire DNA content of a food means “it will be difficult to substitute or hide an ingredient without being detected”, says FSAI chief executive Dr Pamela Byrne. The device, which deploys “next generation sequencing”, has successfully detected adulteration of plant ingredients, and is likely to rolled out in testing beef and poultry across the EU.

The FSAI used less powerful DNA technology, known as targeted testing, to expose the 2013 horsemeat scandal. It detected horse DNA in beef burgers sold in Irish supermarkets, after which similar problems were found in other EU countries.

With the availability certain information on the specific target, it was also able to detect food allergens and genetically modified organisms, and expose mislabelling of fish products.

It has worked with a number of labs including the Irish diagnostics company IdentiGEN in developing the new scanning test. “This tool will be of use in proactively identifying the misdeclaration or non-declaration of any of the ingredients in a food, thereby enhancing the ability of regulators and the food industry alike to protect against food fraud which but can put consumers safety and interests in jeopardy,” Dr Byrne adds.

This key development comes at a time that the FSAI is marking its 20th anniversary. Much has changed in 20 years; new threats from food-borne bugs and new challenges to the integrity of foods. The FSAI is constantly adjusting to such hazards, while testing its resilience in preparing for the next major food scare, according to its chief executive Dr Pamela Byrne.

The UK is the common issue linking then and now. The FSAI was established in 1999 at the height of BSE crisis which originated there. It was the first food safety authority in the EU. Other member states have emulated the FSAI model since.

Linked to the European Food Safety Authority, it is a critical agency in an EU-wide rapid alert system for monitoring, notifying and reacting swiftly to food safety issues. Ireland has been ranked internationally as having a leading food safety system.

“This is because we are transparent,” Byrne believes. It’s due to the way it dealt with the 2008 dioxin crisis (when Ireland had to recall 25 per cent of its pork from domestic and international markets), the recent horse meat scandal, and how it responded to other major food scares – backed by scientific credibility.

Retaining that position is core to its new five-year strategy announced on Tuesday. “We want to be recognised as one of the best systems in the world, with evidence to back it.”

This year the UK features high on the FSAI concerns list again – because of Brexit. It is deeply involved with Government departments and State agencies in evaluating likely impact in the event of a no-deal Brexit which would mean it would become a “third country” with a plethora of extra food safety controls needed; or an orderly transition, which would mean it would retain its current high standards with no additional risks.

In all scenarios Brexit will mean change, she says. There is meticulous evaluation of trading issues, and a similar process in train for food safety – especially in being able to assure other trading partners Ireland is maintaining its own standards. As a food-poisoning outbreak does not recognise borders, close co-operation with the Northern Ireland Food Standards Agency is vital, as is working with industry in both jurisdictions.

A hard Brexit will mean more controls, more document-checking, more testing of foods and “increased in-market surveillance” before foods reach consumers, she confirms.

The strategy sets out further goals to protect consumers of Irish food at home and abroad. There are increasing compliance requirements especially relating to food businesses, but also the promise of enhanced collaboration with the scientific community to ensure national policy protects public health.

The Irish food industry is undergoing unprecedented innovation, particularly in the dairy and ready-to-eat food sectors, while using ingredients sourced from all over the world. Oversight in the form of the authority’s compliance and regulatory framework is critically important, Byrne points out, especially as Irish food businesses access 180 markets across the world.

Coinciding with its 20th anniversary, the authority has published research on consumer attitudes to food safety that will inform its future direction. It focuses on public attitudes to food safety and hygiene; shopping habits and eating out and concerns about food and the food industry. Overall, there is confidence in the safety of Irish food with nine out of 10 people saying food is as safe or safer than it was five years ago.

“However, consumers themselves admitted that they demonstrate risky behaviours in relation to food handling at home,” Dr Byrne says. Nearly half of the Irish population do not pay full attention to labels, with seven out of 10 people admitting they have used food past its “use-by” date.

Growing reliance on convenience food stands out, with eight out of 10 people stating they buy ready-to-eat or pre-prepared food from the supermarket, with 36 per cent buying at least weekly or more frequently. More than one in 10 people use fast-food chains or independent takeaways at least weekly.

There will “robust, proportionate and fair” enforcement of regulations, she adds. “How and where we get our food is constantly changing with many factors impacting on food safety. Research, evidence and science are critical to deepening our knowledge of the known risks and in identifying emerging risks to food safety and integrity. This in turn enables us to manage the risks to consumers and their health accordingly.”

Prepared

Much of the FSAI’s work is ensuring it’s prepared for a big food-poisoning outbreak or a chemical contamination of food incident – sometimes localised; often with an international dimension. Detecting the source can be complex and take time, “while risk to consumers must be removed as fast as possible”, she explains.

Crisis management is key; they recently tested readiness in an exercise working with other State agencies in a simulation of chemical contamination of a variety of foods. Meanwhile, it has to deal with 600 to 700 food incidents a year, ranging from a foreign body in a foodstuff to Listeria bacteria contaminating of a ready-to-eat product. Much of its work is concentrated on identify emerging pathogens and risk factors.

In the Irish context, Listeria, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella strains are of most concern. Food-borne illness has been found to be at a frightening level globally by the World Health Organisation though Ireland compares favourably to other countries.

The world also wrestles with a growing antimicrobial resistance problem, where antibiotics are ineffective, that makes treatment increasingly difficult. In that regard, the FSAI works with a cross-agency body in addressing the issue in Ireland.

Byrne regards food production as “a fragile ecosystem” constantly challenged by new threats. While the FSAI works to ensure it is resilient in responding to related outbreaks and contamination, it also has responsibilities in assuring the public on the authenticity and integrity of foods and food supplements, she adds.

New legislation on the declaration of allergens has led to an increase in food alerts. At one point an audit revealed a level of 80 per cent non-compliance. Two public information campaigns later, she would like to see further improvements because of the public health risk involved, “so consumers are informed” by way of labels on products and notices in food service operations.

There is a better system of notification in place relating to food supplements, where producers have to inform the FSAI when bringing a product onto the market, but it is a complex area and there is more work to do. Complication comes in the way supplements are sold; often online.

Last year it recalled Falcon Labs products due to the presence of illegal steroids and stimulants that pose a serious health risk. Despite a big investigation, it could not identify the manufacturer.

“If you are buying a cheap product online, you are probably not buying what you think you’re buying,” Byrne warns.

Enforcement is the FSAI’s other vital frontier, backed by some 1,100 inspectors employed by other State bodies and local authorities. The monthly publication of enforcement and closure orders, introduced some 18 months ago, has proved to be valuable for consumers, she says, and is part of the FSAI commitment to transparency – there was 109 enforcement orders in 2018, a 58 per cent increase in on 2017.

That figure is small given 50,000 food business operating in Ireland, but “What’s really worrying is the reasons are the same year-on-year, ” Byrne notes – rodent activity, bad food and hygiene practices, no proper handwashing facilities and staff not fully trained.

A preponderance of takeaways and fast-food outlets feature in the orders, where particular challenges such a high staff turnover, difficulty in keeping up with training and “sure, it will be fine” attitudes prevail; when “that behaviour is not appropriate”, she underlines.

Consumer attitudes to food safety

* 13 per cent of people prepare/reheat convenience food at home at least two to three times per week

* 2 per cent eat ready meals/ convenience food only.

* 21 per cent of the population use a deli in a store, supermarket or service station at least once a week.

* Eight out of 10 people say they buy ready-to-eat pre-prepared food from the supermarket, with 36 per cent buying at least weekly or more frequently. One in 10 people use fast-food chains or independent takeaways at least weekly.

* Three out of 10 people use fast-food chains or independent takeaways at least every two to three weeks.

* 89 per cent believe food is as safe or safer than it was five years ago.

* Nearly half of the Irish population (45 per cent) do not pay full attention to use-by dates, with seven out of 10 people claiming they have used food past its sell-by date.

* 62 per cent leave leftovers to cool out of the fridge overnight, to eat in the next couple of days, with nearly half the population storing food in the fridge without any wrapping.

* Younger people are most vulnerable to being sold counterfeit/not authentic products .

* 13 per cent of people claim to have been sold counterfeit/non-authentic products, increasing to 25 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds.

* Three in 10 people say they have purchased food through non-typical sources, with 12 per cent claiming to do this often or sometimes.

* Around half of the population have concerns about food safety in all types of establishments (71 per cent are concerned about street stalls/vendors; 67 per cent concerned about care homes, 67 per cent concerned about independent takeaways).

* 35 per cent of people would like to know more about food safety.

Survey of 1,000 people over 18 conducted by Amárach for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in November 2018