In a university laboratory in Belfast, a student named Terry is holding an infrared sensor over a tiny dish of powdered oregano. At least, it was labelled ‘dried oregano’ for the food market. But is it?
As the sensor’s light hits the material, a software programme performs an analysis. This time the substance is a good match. It quite often isn’t. In some batches, up to 40% of the ‘dried oregano’ came from leaves of another plant, such as myrtle or olive trees.
The problem is not just that people are getting ripped off by having cheap dried leaves added to their packet of herbs. It’s also that, often, those cheaper leaves weren’t properly washed and prepared for human consumption.
When we went and did the pesticide checks, they were absolutely hooching with pesticide,” says Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, where the lab is based. “So even in your 20% adulterated oregano, you were getting a very nice dose of pesticide at the same time.”
Today, the value of the global retail food market is $4tn (£3tn) – and rapidly growing. Some predictions hold that by 2020, it will reach more than $8tn (£6tn). As a result, supply chains are getting more and more complex – and more at risk of a type of criminal fraud in which cheap, often nasty substances are mixed in at some step of the process. The adulterators siphon off billions from the legitimate market. And in doing so, they put people’s health at risk.
Having grown up on a farm in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim, Elliott has a sound understanding of how to produce quality food.
Indeed, he’s long been an expert in the field but was only thrust into the spotlight in 2013, when some processed beef products in the UK – from pre-made burgers to frozen lasagne – were found to contain high percentages of horsemeat. A few products were entirely horsemeat.
The scandal rocked the British retail food industry. Elliott was commissioned by the government to produce a report. Three years later, he says he’s confident there’s no horsemeat lurking in products on supermarket shelves.
But while working on his report, Elliott became convinced that the people behind the horsemeat scandal were organised criminals – hiding their activities in markets across Europe and scamming millions from innocent customers who ate their fraudulent products.
At Elliott’s lab, this adulteration and contamination continues to be found in a wide range of food products – not just minced beef.
In the main testing room, there are measuring instruments and little containers everywhere. Some of them are stored in pizza boxes for convenience. One machine vaporises samples at temperatures of 10,000 Kelvin (approximately 9,700C (17,500F)).
Another, the size of an upright piano, costs £750,000 ($985,000). It can perform hundreds of different tests at once. “Don’t break it!” jokes Elliott as he passes a student at work. “I won’t,” comes the slightly nervous reply.
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