I am a fan of technology and its place in the world...as a force for good, a driver of the best of human nature, an enabler of our natural desire to know, to learn, to adapt. No Luddite am I (even though my text messages are punctuated perfectly, this is more about my love of English than my dislike of the modern format), so when I hear about emerging technology being framed for use in protecting the sector I serve, I take the keenest of interests.
This story in Horizon (The EU's Research and Innovation magazine) concerns the adoption of Smartphone applications for detecting food fraud immediately, at the point of production, supplier delivery or sale. First thoughts are that this is an excellent idea, empowering manufacturers, retailers and the general public to personally test the food they purchase.
The plan is for a device to be attached to a Smartphone which allows for an instant check on key quality or safety parameters. The initial focus has been on proving claims of 'Organic' - these claims tend to be accompanied by premium pricing and are known to affect consumer behaviour. The application will also be adapted to detect pesticides and antibiotics which, the article states, can take laboratories days or weeks to identify, delaying release of produce or allowing unsafe food to be sold while test results are pending.
All of this sounds eminently sensible and desirable - who would object to any technique that allows for swifter and more agile decision-making in keeping fraudulent or unsafe food from public sale? Certainly not I, however, as a representative of commercial contract laboratories for many years (and a concerned citizen), I have a question or two.
Who decides what criteria denotes pass or fail in each case and can prove this sufficient? Many current authenticity and contaminant analyses involve multiple complex methods to produce a definitive answer - if we are substituting, e.g., the analysis of 400+ individual pesticides or the broad analytical interrogation of EV Olive oil, with a single Smartphone technique, what do we gain or lose? What limitations are there? Or consideration of interference, false positives, uncertainty? What happens if a concerned member of the public challenges their local greengrocer on maleic hydrazide levels in their King Edwards? Who takes on the burden of proof?
I have no doubt that all of this is being considered - the FoodSmartphone ETN project includes Universities (including Queens, Belfast), Research Centres, a global food partner and diagnostics input from SMEs - but commercial food labs, who have spent decades developing, adapting and improving techniques, with real-life customer issues as the driver, would surely have a positive contribution to make.
As laboratories whose role is to protect businesses and the public from unsafe and sub-standard food, we should get behind any technology which can be shown to make a positive contribution to our shared goal. We also have a duty to ask questions on the validation of those techniques and the integrity of the results they produce.
Food fraudsters have found myriad ways to trick shoppers – from cheap horsemeat sold as beef to conventional apples labelled as organic. But new rapid testing and tracing technologies may help turn the tables on food crime.