Food integrity is our biggest challenge, said Professor Chris Elliot OBE, at the Oxford Farming Conference. The professor from Queens University, Belfast, who investigated the Horsegate scandal and is the leading expert on food fraud, said the more pressure the food production system is under, the more likely food integrity is to be compromised.
Professor Elliot defined his six principles of food integrity – what he believes every human has a right to – which include safe, authentic, nutritious food produced from a sustainable source and to ethical standards in an environment that respects the environment and those producing it.
With a rapidly growing population, the world is under increasing strain to produce food, and as the demand mounts, so does the potential for producers and processors to cut corners. In the UK, 1 in 66 suffers from a food-borne illness, compared to 1 in 6 in the US, and potentially higher in the rest of the world. Another aspect Professor Elliot highlighted was hidden hunger, whereby people think they are eating a nutritious diet but due to how the food is produced it is lacking that vital nutrition.
“There’s more money to be made in crime through food fraud than there is in narcotics,” said Professor Elliot. “I do fear that we in the UK may be exposed to greater threats going forward and
as a result the public will lose further trust in our national food supply system.”
Professor Elliot suggested some possible measures to mitigate the problem including the importance of education about nutrition and healthy eating from a young age, to the more complex technology of blockchain, and handheld scanners which could give a ‘fingerprint’ of a product to identify its contents in the Cloud within five minutes.
With a complex supply chain worldwide, the challenge is how to monitor and maintain food integrity. Starting at home, Professor Elliot called for a system that audits at both producer and processor level, but is aware that it is not a quick fix.
“There have been many calls for a major rethink about how food is produced and distributed but the means of implementing such major changes is far from clear and ultimately who would take such decisions? To my mind this could only be achieved at a national level and then only by a country working together across a diverse and fragmented political and economic spectrum,” he said.
“The level of changes needed are substantial, the level of investment will be significant but the potential to have an entire population eating food that fulfils all six principles would undoubtedly be akin to a new industrial revolution. Paradoxically the first two industrial revolutions drove people away from the land, this one could help bring them back again.”
The Science Lecture was sponsored by law firm Burges Salmon.