From salt to saffron, from soil to society – leading the way in food security

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once famously said “After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life.” The latter part of the statement could be debated, but the first part is true.

Food is fundamental to life, to survival, to existence. However, as supply chains have become more complex, so the need for detailed examination into food has become all the more critical. Each transaction in the supply chain presents an opportunity to cheat and impact negatively on food integrity. 

Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) is at the forefront of research into food fraud. Its research is now globally recognised and ranked number one for research intensity in food sciences (REF 2014).

Established in 2013, the £33m facility has been conducting ground-breaking research in its state-of-the-art laboratories. So advanced is the level of food security research at Queen’s, laboratories around the world now use tests developed by the team of international experts within the Institute.

Focused on detecting multiple chemical contaminants in food and feed, the Institute has conducted an ambitious, five-year, world-wide study into all available reported chemical contamination in feeds, determining types of feed, geographic origin and health risks and paving the way for the food industry to set up a self-monitoring programme. The ‘Food Fortress’ is now a major marketing tool for the entire Northern Ireland food industry.

Professor Chris Elliott, who founded the Institute for Global Food Security, is one of the world’s leading experts on food integrity. In 2013, he was appointed to lead an independent review of the UK's food system, following the horsemeat scandal.

As Professor Elliott highlights, contamination and food fraud can happen in any type of food commodity or food ingredient including everything from salt to saffron. He explains, “We conduct much research into, for example, food fraud in fish, meat, rice, herb and spice chains. Our technological advances mean we can easily detect if fraud has been committed in all of these products even though they are extremely vulnerable to fraud because of their complex and extensive supply chains.”

The global food security scientists at Queen’s have also exposed a major issue with inorganic arsenic in infant food. The research, led by Professor Andy Meharg, played a significant role in driving the EU to introduce specific laws in 2016 relating to inorganic arsenic in infant food. In January 2016, the EU imposed a maximum limit of inorganic arsenic on manufacturers in a bid to mitigate associated health risks.  Research conducted by the Institute in 2017, discovered around half of baby rice sold in major UK supermarkets contains illegal levels of inorganic arsenic which could impact on child I.Q., growth rates and immune development. 

Director of the IGFS, Professor Nigel Scollan, said, “We take a holistic approach to global food security and research all aspects of the food chain. Food fraud is one aspect but we are also committed to examining the health of soils, crops, animal and people. For example, Queen’s researchers track and prevent multiple contaminations of crops, animal feeds and foods. They also help detect fraud across the global food supply system and develop world leading food provenance systems.”

The university is currently investing £50million in new facilities, equipment and staffing to continue to advance the area.

For further information on Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security visit: https://www.qub.ac.uk/Research/GRI/TheInstituteforGlobalFoodSecurity/