This week on the GFSI Experts Series, we get a lesson from Professor Chris Elliott, one of the world’s leading academic authorities on food safety and security. Perhaps best known for leading an independent inquiry into the UK’s supply chain following the horse meat scandal in 2013, he remains at the frontline of the fight against food fraud in his role as Director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Chris is on a mission to promote his vision for ‘food integrity’, a new definition of food security that extends to concepts like ethics, sustainability and nutrition. After outlining the principles of food integrity at the GFSI Conference, Chris sat down to explain how tools such as technology and legislation can help stakeholders work towards this ambitious goal.
This interview was conducted by Sara Lewis freelance journalist with IEG Policy onsite at the GFSI Conference in Nice, France. To read more about GFSI from this journalist, be sure to follow US Food Policy, European Food Law, European Agricultural Policy and US Agricultural Policy. Watch this in-depth interview from the GFSI Experts Series or read the interview below.
Sara: Why do you want the UN to adopt a new definition of food security that includes the word integrity?
Chris: We’ve got to start to think about something beyond food security. Food security is a fantastic thing that we can think about, but so many things are changing in the world. We’ve got the issues of climate change. Do we really want to look after all of the animals? Do we need to look after all of the people who work in the food supply system? Integrity is actually a much bigger topic than food security. I’m trying to convince many of the stakeholders across the world to think more about integrity in terms of how we deliver a food system for the future.
Sara: How can we overcome resistance to new technologies like genetically modified organisms, irradiation and cold plasma?
Chris: I think it’s interesting because we as consumers quite adore technology if it’s about our smartphone, if it’s about faster cars and all sorts of different things. But when it comes to technology in food, we get very nervous about it. I guess that’s because it’s something that we consume, but we consume pharmaceuticals and that’s very technology-driven. I think we’ve got to separate out some of the myths about technology in food and really think about the benefit of technology in terms of making our foods safer, more sustainable and more nutritious. We don’t have to say that we accept GM or that we dislike GM. Let’s just take it on a case-by-case basis. Look at the science, look at the evidence, and then make sure that we convince people it’s the right thing to do for all of our sakes.
Sara: Why do you think GM foods are still not widely accepted in the EU?
Chris: In many ways, the EU has driven food safety standards across the world. That’s been very much about convincing the European consumer that we’ve got safe food, and also about stimulating world trade. And I think that’s been fantastic. But we also in Europe have very much a precautionary principle. If we can’t be absolutely sure something’s safe, we don’t use it. I think we’re missing so many advantages. Technology is changing across the world, and we’ve got to be careful in Europe that we don’t become food insecure because we’re not willing to accept things that are scientifically proven to be safe. I think that things like gene editing are very safe, and we’ve got to convince consumers it’s the right thing to do.
Sara: Do you support gene modification?
Chris: I like to think about two things. There is the hard, scientific evidence, but there’s also the social sciences about how can you instill trust in people: to give the truth, to give the right messages. We all then try to make our decisions. I’m not saying that all our food in Europe should be GM. I think there should be an opportunity to produce GM food and to inform people. Then, as consumers, we can make that decision ourselves: what we buy and what we don’t.
Sara: Do you think lab-grown meat is a way forward?
Chris: The concept of laboratory-based meat is quite topical at the moment. I think it’s been very much overhyped, personally. I see multiple issues with it going forward. I wonder about the nutritional quality of the meat that’s going to be produced. I really wonder about what’s the true environmental impact of that, the use of energy. Will it be as safe as convention meat? I tend to be a little bit skeptical about the future of lab-based meat. What we’ve got to do is really think about how we produce good quality, safe, sustainable meat going forward. That’s a much better way forward for our planet.
Sara: What do you think of the demand for plant-based proteins?
Chris: We hear many statistics about the environmental footprint of how food is being produced, plant-based food and animal-based food. I read articles every day, and they totally contradict one another. We need to know what’s the carbon footprint, what’s the water footprint, what’s the impact of biodiversity? What’s the impact on our nutrition or micronutrition? That’s how we should make decisions about what we eat going forward. Let’s not be ruled by doctrine or dogma.
Sara: What is cold plasma, and why do you think it’s going to be important?
Chris: We’ve become incredibly interested in this concept of cold plasma at my university in Belfast. In fact, we’re developing a cold plasma centre for agriculture and food. It’s a way that we can decontaminate the surface of food, whether it be contaminated with microorganisms or chemicals. It’s a very safe way to do it, just by putting a little bit of energy into air streams, or energy into water. What it does is disrupt those hazardous materials on the surface of foodstuffs. I think it’s one of the big technology futures that we have, for ensuring not only that food is safer but for increasing the shelf life, which in turn reduces food waste.
Sara: Is this technology ready for commercial use?
Chris: Cold plasma is something still in its infancy in terms rolling it out into industry. We’ve got a multitude of different pilot projects now: working with fresh produce, working with meat, really trying to find what are the best applications for it. Then, how do we scale up the technology that will be cost-effective in terms of delivering safer food and food with a longer shelf life?
Sara: You’ve done a lot of work on food fraud. What are your findings on this issue?
Chris: I spent a lot of time looking at fraud in our global food supply system. There are no food commodities, no food ingredients that are free from fraud. Our world food system is worth trillions of dollars every year, so of course there are going to be people who are going to cheat. There’s a growing concern that more and more organised crime is getting involved in fraud in our food system. There is so much money to be made, the chances of being caught are quite slim, and if you are caught the penalties are trivial. What we’ve got to do is really think about, on a global basis, how we’re going to stop cheats in our food system.
Sara: Do you think the new EU legislation on official controls that will take effect in December 2019 will solve the issue?
Chris: In terms of how we deal with fraud on a global basis, the first thing is we’ve got to deter it. Then we’ve got to detect it, and then we’ve got to deal with it when we find it. A lot of the terms are about more visibility on transparency of supply chains, a lot more checking about what people are doing. Then, if somebody is caught, we need the penalty to meet the crime itself. This is massive amounts of money people are making, and they are taking huge risks with the well-being of many people. It worries me, particularly about the young children who get impacted by food fraud. I would be in favor of some pretty draconian penalties if somebody is caught cheating in our food system.
Sara: Do governments need to invest more money into preventing fraud?
Chris: In terms of who’s responsible for stopping fraud from happening, often governments will say that’s the responsibility of industry, and industry will say it’s the responsibility of governments. Do you know what? It’s the responsibility of both: both working together, having a coherent programme of checking and detecting, sharing information amongst each other. That’s what will really keep the bad guys out of our food system.
Sara: How can GFSI help solve these problems?
Chris: GFSI is a wonderful organisation. It is the coalition of the good coming together to think about how we make our food system safer. It has all the connectivity between businesses, between governments. It has a massive role in how we roll out these technologies, these things about the digitisation of supply chains, better auditing, better inspection, more testing. What a wonderful organisation to take the leadership role in making our food system more safe and more secure.
Sara: Is blockchain the answer to fraud?
Chris: Blockchain is a wonderful thing. I’ve been hearing about blockchain for many years. We’ve been running a number of projects on blockchain. What we’ve got to do is to separate out the truth from the hype. Blockchain is a nice way of digitising supply chains, but you’ve got to be careful that the information that goes into those digital systems is accurate and correct. I’m not sure that people really understand that yet. There’s more to having a transparent, safe, secure supply chain than just using blockchain.
Sara: Thank you very much.
Chris: You’re welcome.