How can we be sure our food is safe to eat?

1 Feb 2018

Image: science photo/Shutterstock

Is the food we’re putting into our bodies fit for human consumption? TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports from the latest 4IRC debate.

On 9 January, our series of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IRC) debates focused on food safety and security, held in Belfast’s Youth Action building.

The debate – in partnership with the Royal Society of Biology – explored:

  • How can we more effectively protect and trace our food?
  • Can we survive on lab-grown foods?
  • How will we feed the growing global population?
  • Where does Northern Ireland (NI) sit on food safety and sustainability?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges we face to achieve global food safety and security?

The first speaker was Dr Katrina Campbell, a Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) lecturer in bioanalytical systems, and founder of spin-out Xenobics.

Campbell discussed food forensics in the 21st century.


Dr Katrina Campbell, QUB. Image: TechWatch

“Food and agriculture worldwide is fundamental to the preservation and advancement of human life on this planet,” she said. “But when we think of the threats to the planet, we think of cars and smokestacks, but not our dinner; however, food and agriculture is one of the biggest threats to the environment.”

She continued: “The global food system has many elements, and the food supply chain is truly global. When there’s an event in contamination, it creates awareness and that creates doubt throughout the world.”

Globally, around 600m people will fall ill from eating contaminated food. Of these, 420,000 die. Typically, this is caused by microbiological contamination, whether bacterial, viral or parasitic, or chemical or process contaminants. It could also be industrial contamination, a biothreat – contamination through animal feed that gets into the meat supply chain.

Campbell said: “Under EU regulation, it’s the business of food operators to ensure our food is safe to eat.”

She then discussed the CSI types of food forensics available to researchers. That includes functional assays and analytical methods, such as mass spectrometry.

In one example, a type of food fraud involves monkfish being switched for poisonous puffer fish. Katrina showed a type of analysis involving mass spectrometry, where a laser pen cuts through the fish, creating smoke and testing it for the poisonous compounds.

She explained: “Spectroscopic methods have a big advantage in that they’re non-destructive techniques. However, they might not be good at testing very low levels of the contaminants.”

“Another type of testing – bioassays, like the pregnancy test – could detect a very low level of contamination in a sample,” she said.

“So, we set up a spin-out company called Xenobics. We produce specialist reagents for rapid food safety diagnostic kits, for cost-effective, point-of-site testing.”

She concluded: “Lab-on-a-chip technology could detect multiple toxins, or pathogens, on one chip.”

The next speaker was Gavin Killeen, managing director of Nuprint Technologies based in Derry.


Gavin Killeen, Nuprint Technologies. Image: TechWatch

“At present, it’s been shown that 20pc of fresh products on supermarket shelves have gone beyond their best. Freshness of food is based only on time indicators, but the time factor is only relevant if it’s been stored at the right temperature,” said Killeen.

“Through thermochromic inks, we’d print on the label ‘Unfit for human consumption’ and the message becomes visible when the ink reacts with degrees greater than zero.

“We’re also looking at labels that will react with moulds from breads, where the spores will come into contact with the label.”

More information about Nuprint’s R&D project in smart food labelling is available here.

“NI could go to the forefront of selling great food products; there is great opportunity for NI,” Killeen concluded.

Audience members were then asked for questions for a panel discussion hosted by Emer Maguire. Joining the speakers were Neil Bradley, former chef and founder of Food Safe System, and Dr Elaine Groom, AFBI point of contact for Horizon 2020.


Audience members at 4IRC debate. Image: TechWatch

The smart labelling you discussed – who will pay for that?

Killeen: “The cost will be incurred by the consumer. It has to be commercially acceptable, but the benefit is that you know your food is safe.”

Maguire asked for a show of hands on who would be happy to pay extra for smart labels – the audience was split.

What products would have it?

Bradley: “The more expensive items, not a tub of coleslaw. If you look at M&S, RFID tags were not available years ago; now they have them on suits and other high-end items.”

Will we all be vegetarian by 2030?

Bradley: “Animal-free meat is coming forward, so we can produce meat products without killing animals – how far is that away? I don’t think it’s that far away, but the world isn’t going vegetarian.”

Campbell: “It’s important to ensure the food supply chain includes good animal welfare and good environmental factors. The global food system is a complex system.

“With technology, there are new capabilities. For instance, AI can be used for precision farming techniques. The IoT will bring connectivity, whether it’s by 2030 or not. We’re starting to bring in other sectors like blockchain. Possibly a lot more robotics will be used to monitor foods. With the right money behind it – where we need government support – the right things can happen.”

What other food safety issues are there besides contamination?

Groom: “What isn’t in food? We’re starting to understand what is suboptimal nutrition in food – for instance, relying too much on processed foods. For example, red wine contains resveratrol, supposed to be very beneficial. As we look at fruit and veg, we find more and more chemicals that have beneficial effects.”

Would the thermochromic inks be recyclable?

Killeen: “It depends on what the sensors are like. The ink will be printed on clear film – clear film doesn’t get recycled into clear film, but back into something like asphalt, whereas a plastic bottle will go back to being a bottle if it’s cleaned.”

How long will it take to commoditise the smart labels?

Killeen: “Retailers haven’t allowed RFID to happen; big players like Coca-Cola haven’t pushed it. It will be driven forward by consumer demand. Maybe a smaller player like Lidl or Aldi will do it faster than a larger mainstream retailer, and the rest will have to follow.”

Will it be a scandal that drives it?

Killeen: “Probably, yes. If terrorists are capable of flying a plane into a building, think about how many people they could hurt with contaminating food.”

Groom: “I wanted to pick up on a couple things. Yes, supply chains are global now. We are dealing with a revolution in the same way the industrial revolution changed things.

“I have this diagram I want to show, presented by a European commissioner. It uses the Netherlands food supply chain as an example, but it’s true everywhere.

“In the diagram, 65,000 farmers are supplying through to just five wholesalers, who then feed 167m people.

“It’s shocking how a single country has such a bottleneck of people controlling the food supply. We’re now seeing changes to this supply chain, such as Amazon selling food.”

What are the biggest barriers to change in food security and safety?

Maguire: “That’s a great question. Is it that we don’t want to pay more? We don’t want to adopt new tech? We don’t have expertise in new tech? Each panellist will give their response.”

Campbell: “I think the barriers are adoption to technology, and policy related to risk. Some technologies take 20 years to get through frameworks. How detrimental is this going to be versus how beneficial?”

Groom: “I agree. There’s a fear of being first; the cost of being first. Certain large industries in NI like to be first to be second.”

Killeen: “Consumers being prepared to pay slightly more for something better. We’re all driven by what’s cheap. Our farmers are at the bottom of the food chain and getting squeezed.”

Bradley: “Adoption is the problem. Kitchens are still using technology that’s 200 years old. Restaurants have been slow to take on new tech. Chefs generally don’t have much interest in technology.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland