Public Release:  Queen's University puts over 2,400 food scares under the microscope

Analysis of food recalls in the USA, UK and Ireland

Queen's University Belfast

As the increasing number food scares causes consumers to question the safety of everyday food items, researchers at Queen's University Belfast have completed the first ever analysis of all the food recalls announced in the USA, UK and Ireland over the last decade.

The research, by Dr Antony Potter at Queen's Centre for Assured and Traceable Foods (ASSET) identified 2,439 food recalls over the past ten years - including the recall of 380 million eggs in the USA in 2010 following a Salmonella outbreak at a farm in Iowa, and the 2008 pork recall in Ireland, which affect export markets in 21 countries around the world.

The research will be discussed during The Food Integrity and Traceability Conference taking place at the University this week (21-24 March). This international event, held in partnership with safefood, will showcase the latest developments in food safety and traceabilty.

Dr Potter said: "The number of food scares and product recalls has increased significantly in the past decade. Until now, however, there has been no international database to measure trends in food recalls.

"Our detailed analysis of recalls in the UK, Ireland and USA begins to fill that gap. It outlines how the frequency and severity of recalls has increased over the past ten years, accompanied by significant financial implications for food producers. The 2008 pork recall in Ireland, for example, cost the Irish economy an estimated €125 million.

"Of the product recalls we identified, 68 per cent were detected during routine or spot testing by regulatory bodies, and only 21 per cent were detected by the company in question. Around one fifth (21 per cent) were in the meat industry, 12 per cent in processed foods and 11 per cent in fruit and vegetables.

"Most recalls (56 per cent) resulted from operational mistakes, such as incorrect labelling, the presence of an undeclared ingredient, or contamination during the production process. While biological causes, such as the detection of Listeria, Salmonella and E Coli were also a factor, a significant number of food safety alerts were actually due to food fraud and corruption by suppliers further down the supply chain. This highlights the need for food producers to invest in ensuring the traceability of their products back through the supply chain."

Dr Potter is one of 40 speakers from more than 20 countries who will address The Food Integrity and Traceability Conference this week. Professor Chris Elliott from Queen's School of Biological Sciences has organised the conference.

Professor Elliott said: "Despite mounting evidence of the increasing levels of food fraud, and growing public demand for safe and authentic food, this is a topic that few in the food industry appear willing to talk about openly for fear of the repercussions for their brand.

"Food producers, however, should be reassured that major scientific advancements are being made to help detect food contaminants and minimise risks to the food supply chain. Scientists at Queen's are at the forefront of these developments, and we are willing to work with companies to put in place the latest techniques to detect and deter food fraud. Many of these techniques will be discussed during this week's conference."

The conference is jointly organised by Queen's and safefood, the North-South body responsible for the promotion of food safety on the island of Ireland. Dr Gary Kearney, Director, Food Science, safefood said: "The increase in the number of food scares since the early 1990's has had a negative impact on consumer confidence in the food supply chain. To restore confidence and allay consumer concerns, it is vital that new scientific methods are developed which can detect harmful toxins early in the production of food, thereby facilitating appropriate containment measures and ensuring consumer protection.

"This conference will highlight the latest scientific methodologies for controlling food safety hazards as well as the challenges to providing robust food traceability systems. These and other issues are essential to the provision of safe food and protecting consumers on the island of Ireland."

Among the conference highlights will be Professor Garry Lee from the University of Western Australia and TSW Analytical P/L, who will present a new traceability system being trialled in the Australian pork industry and its lessons for the UK and Ireland pork industry following the Irish pork contamination scare of 2008.

As the demand for organic food continues to grow, Dr Simon Kelly from Defra's Food and Environment Research Agency will present some of the latest techniques in determining the origins of food and whether or not those labelled 'organic' are truly organically produced.

Owen Brennan, Managing Director of Belfast-based agri-technology company Devenish Nutrition, will discuss the controversial EU ban on GM crops and its negative impact on ensuring a sustainable EU food production system; while Professor Peter Shears from the University of Plymouth Law School will speak about the lack of resources being invested in the fight against food fraud.

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For more information about The Food Integrity and Traceability Conference, or to register online visit www.qub.ac.uk/asset2011

Media inquiries to Anne-Marie Clarke at Queen's University Communications Office on +44 (0)28 9097 5320 or email anne-marie.clarke@qub.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  • Professor Chris Elliott and Dr Antony Potter from Queen's University are available for interview. Interview bids to Anne-Marie Clarke at Queen's Communications Office on +44 (0)28 9097 5320 or email anne-marie.clarke@qub.ac.uk
  • Dr Gary Kearney and Dr James McIntosh from safefood are available for interview. Interview bids to Dermot Moriarty at safefood on +3353 1448 0622 Mobile: +353 8638 11034 or email dMoriarty@safefood.eu
  • Other key findings from The big picture: Key trends in international product recalls within the food industry, by Dr Antony Potter and Jason Murray from Queen's University's ASSET Research Centre, are as follows:
    • 2,439 recalls were identified in the USA (2000-2010), UK and Ireland (both 2002-2010). 74 per cent were in the USA, 21 per cent in the UK and 5 per cent in the Republic of Ireland.
    • Operational mistakes were the primary reason for most (56 per cent) of the recalls. The most common of these mistakes were incorrect labelling (36 per cent), the presence of an undeclared ingredient (22 per cent) or contamination during the production process (19 per cent).
    • Of the food recalls that were caused by biological factors, 32 per cent were due to the presence of Listeria, 25 per cent related to the present of Salmonella, and 19 per cent to E Coli.
    • Of the 512 recalls in the UK between 2002-2010, the most common biological causes were the detection of Sudan dyes or Salmonella. The most common operational causes were contamination during the production process or incorrect labelling.
    • Of the 122 recalls in the Republic of Ireland between 2002-2010 the most common biological causes were the detection of Sudan dyes or spoilage. The most common operational causes were contamination during the production process or the presence of an unauthorised or undeclared ingredient.
  • The Food Integrity and Traceability Conference will take place at Queen's University Belfast from 21-24 March 2011. For more information visit www.qub.ac.uk/asset2011
  • Additional quotes from selected conference speakers. Interview bids for these speakers should be directed to Anne-Marie Clarke at Queen's University (details above):

    Professor Garry Lee, University of Western Australia

    "The ability to rapidly identify the source of a product is critical in the unlikely event of a food safety incident. Traceability in the Australian pork industry is paper-based and requires large amount of resources to quickly identify 'at risk' animals or meat products.

    "Physi-Trace enhances the industry's ability to meet Australia's national livestock traceability performance standards, which is based on rapid response. Under the Physi-Tracetrial, over50,000 fresh pork samples from export abattoirs across Australiawill be collectedeach year. A percentage of these will be tested for trace elements and, in conjunction with the existing paper-based system, can be used to trace back to the abbatoir of slaughter and the farm where the animal was raised.

    "The Physi-Trace system is a simple, robust low cost tool based on the trace element profiles of fresh pork meat, which has the potential to improve traceability in pork industries around the world. Following the UK Foot and Mouth crisis and the Irish pork contamination scare of 2008 and 2009, which highlighted the lack of traceability in pork production, this could have particular lessons for the pork industry in the UK and Ireland."

    Dr Simon Kelly, Defra's Food and Environment Research Agency

    Dr Kelly said: "In recent years, the organic food sector has grown rapidly in response to increasing consumer demand for organic products. While the founders of the organic farming movement placed considerable value on close links between producers and consumers, this gap has widened as the organic food sector has become dominated by corporate players that may not share this aspect of the organic philosophy. And in recent years there have been a number of cases where conventional products were mislabelled and fraudulently sold as organic.

    "The globalisation of the organic retail sector places an increased burden on traceability systems and certification or inspection bodies. So I believe analysis has a role to play in supporting the certification process where there is suspicion of fraud.

    "There is a real need for development of scientific methods to distinguish between organic and conventional produce, and the Food Traceability and Integrity Conference at Queen's University provides the ideal opportunity for the scientific community and food producers to explore the latest developments in this area."

    Professor Peter Shears, University of Plymouth Law School

    Professor Peter Shears from the University of Plymouth Law School will speak about the lack of resources being invested in the fight against food fraud. He said: "As scientists strive to develop innovative and sophisticated techniques to tackle food fraud, there remains a basic problem of a lack of resources in this area.

    "Without a considerable increase in the resources made available for the appliance of the science we are developing, the battle against food fraud will never be fully engaged, let alone won."

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