Why you might want to look a bit closer at what you're eating

Shopping basket, meat in abattoir, sheep, barcode

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Economic strife, unemployment and the high cost of living could lead to a growth in black market food sales and food fraud. That was the warning at a London conference on global food risk.

Food is an essential for all of us, but in these straitened times, it's an expense as well.

As a result, people may go to great lengths to get it for less - while those who produce it may cut corners to boost their sometimes meagre profits.

The food we buy in supermarkets must meet rigorous standards to make sure it is safe to eat - but those standards increase the costs.

Stealing an animal from a farmer's field or buying goods out of the back of a van is certainly cheaper, and those in the know fear the temptation of those options could prove too strong for some.

Threats to our food

  • Unintentional contamination - accidental damage, for example, due to poor storage
  • Deliberate - for personal, malicious or ideological reasons
  • Indirect - for financial gain, for example, by watering down a product

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, Fiona Lickorish, an expert in food trends, says: said: "I think black market food is still going to be around and probably getting worse if what's going on with the economy isn't improving.

"I think there will be a trickle down to people at the lowest level who will find it very difficult to afford their food bills."

She adds grimly: "If I was a farmer I would be locking up my sheep because we're already seeing a much higher incidence of rustling.

"If you were clever you could get yourself a mobile slaughterhouse, get rustling, and be selling into the black market."

Indirect risk

Ms Lickorish was one of several figures giving their views at a London conference on future food risks this week.

Another was Terry Donohoe, head of strategy and policy at the chemical safety division of the Food Standards Agency.

He describes three kinds of food threat - unintentional, deliberate and indirect - and it's the latter that's causing most concern at the moment.

Policing the problem

  • The FSA investigated 1,505 incidents in 2010 and issued 70 food alerts
  • Five countries - Iran, China, the US, Turkey and Spain - are responsible for 50% of the rogue products detected in Europe
  • The three most active policemen of food quality are the UK, Germany and Italy

As opposed to deliberate contamination - which may be done for malicious or ideological reasons by anybody from a disgruntled employee to a terrorist - indirect contamination is for financial gain, and while harming people might never be the intention, it could still be the end result.

Practically speaking, it means changing a product in some way to try to squeeze more value out of it - watering it down, using substandard ingredients, skipping a rule or regulation or two.

An extreme example was seen in China in 2008 when melamine was added to milk formula in an apparent effort to cheat checks on its protein levels - six babies died.

Alec Kyriakides, head of product quality at Sainsbury's, told the conference this type of food fraud was his biggest worry at present.

"If you look at motivation, what creates an environment where people undertake that activity, I think we are moving into that type of environment.

"We have to look at our control programmes, we have to be vigilant."

Being vigilant, everyone agreed, means trying to identify the weak points in the food supply chain - these are often the points at which the value of the goods undergoes a significant jump, between farmer and wholesaler, or wholesaler and retailer.

Those weak points could be an individual or company under financial pressure - with something to gain from creaming off a bit extra - or perhaps a part of the world where standards are not rigorously enforced.

Insects and GM

Ms Lickorish, a principal research fellow at Cranfield University, is into a brand of work called horizon scanning.

Rather than spotting the latest food fads, she tries to identify longer term and "megatrends" - ones driven by fundamental change - like urbanisation or an ageing population.

For example, mankind's consumption of meat has tripled in the past three decades and is forecast to double again by 2050 - horizon scanners are trying to envisage how we might cope with that huge demand.

Start Quote

You only need a food price spike to see how people's attitude to GMOs changes”

End Quote Fiona Lickorish Cranfield University

One option will be to look to new countries to supply it, but not everyone has the same high food safety and animal welfare standards of the UK.

Future entrants to the EU might seem like a welcome option, but Turkey, for example, has a high number of incidents of foot and mouth disease, so we couldn't start immediately trading livestock with them, the conference was told.

People may also look to alternative sources for protein, namely insects, and more of us may take up DIY urban farming.

The growth of mobile slaughterhouses might have potential for illegal uses, but they could also be a way of satisfying a growing demand for locally-sourced meat, while reducing fears associated with animal movement.

Ms Lickorish also believes we're likely to see a resurgence in GMOs - genetically modified organisms - in food products, arguing that "you only need a food price spike to see how people's attitude to GMOs changes".

"The majority of people don't care where their food comes from as long as it's safe and cheap," she adds.

Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the FSA, thinks the success of GM will come down to what kind of benefits the public see from it.

He compares it with the microwave - people put aside any issues they might have with the technology because it's so useful - GM just has to become indispensable in the same way.

Ingenious labelling

Speaking of technology, horizon scanners have also spotted some exciting things in the food pipeline - things we might all see on our shelves in the next few years.

Intelligent packaging made with special paper that wards off bacteria and could help keep food fresh longer.

Ultra violet chopping boards which destroy 99.9% of bacteria.

And ingenious labels which use the ammonia given off by meat as it degrades. Ammonia alters the label's barcode to gradually render it unreadable and unsaleable when the product has fallen below a certain standard.

Innovations of these sorts could hopefully reduce food poisoning and food waste, thanks to more accurate use-by dates.

Like so many trends, though, new technology could be something of a double-edged sword.

Scientists are also creating micro-tools that, in theory at least, we could all use to test food and drink for pathogens and pesticides.

This might help keep us healthier, but it might, Ms Lickorish says, actually lead to more food scares, not less, if we're all able to scrutinise our restaurant meals or supermarket sandwiches before we eat them.

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