10 years of EU-funded Integrated Research delivers an improved and safer food chain
The combined findings from 14 EU-funded food traceability projects that investigated the safety and integrity of the whole food chain have just been published, representing over 10 years of research results.
Now, in light of the February 2012 launch of the European Commission's Bioeconomy Action Plan, the forthcoming Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, continued negotiations on CAP reform, and an ever vigilant consumer, CORDIS News takes stock of how far we've come on the road to a safer food chain and how these EU-funded projects have made a difference.
As food chains became ever more global in scope, the origin, safety and quality of the food we eat became an increasingly major concern for consumers and the food industry alike. Back in 2000 when many of these projects kicked-off, Europe was still shaking from the 1999 Dioxin contamination scandal, the BSE crisis, and an increasing number of microbial food contamination health scares.
These food crises highlighted the need for models and detection systems to prevent contamination of the food chain and led to the 2002 EU General Food Law Regulation that made it compulsory for one step up/down traceability systems to be operational in the food industry, making individual producers accountable for traceability in the food chain. The European Parliament specifically requested that the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) dedicate part of its research budget to food traceability and integrity to support this policy, which it did to the tune of EUR 98 million.
The research coordinators from these 14 individual FP6 projects worked together over a 2-year period to formulate a novel dissemination strategy for their results, which covered the complete spectrum of the traceability sector, a groundbreaking move that EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Márie Geoghegan-Quinn describes as part of an approach designed to address the 'need to improve the dissemination of finished EU research projects'.
The results from the projects were presented at the 'What's for lunch?' conference held in Brussels in late 2011 and they have also been compiled and published in an academic textbook titled Food chain integrity.
The projects all set out to address origin and traceability issues by making sure consumers can be sure that food really comes from where it says it comes from.
Consumers want to know that what they are eating is safe and that it really is what it says it is.
Beyond the scientific results produced collectively by the projects, there were also clear additional benefits in terms of educational opportunities, mobility, industrial support, integration and dissemination, as illustrated by 100 PhD and 40 Masters degrees, 350 external and internal reports, 28 International Scientific Cooperation (INCO) activities partners, 30 international meetings, 150 EU meetings and169 mobility transfers across different laboratories.
The projects also had a 29% female management structure, made links with 84 industrial partners, held 98 industrial workshops, published 696 peer-reviewed scientific papers and had 7 patents granted.
The Integrated Project (IP) TRACEBACK ('Integrated system for a reliable traceability of food supply chains') focused on food origin, creating a system that establishes an information link from a product's raw material stage to its eventual sale.
As well as improving health and safety standards for the consumer, this method also allows industry players to trace their product and gauge its quality along the chain of production, manufacturing, handling, transportation and distribution. The TRACEBACK system therefore helps producers meet industry requirements and EU regulations.
Another traceability project that developed robust techniques to identify, rank and assess vulnerabilities in the food chain was TRACE ('Tracing the origin of food'). The aim of TRACE was to help consumers better know where their food comes from by giving them confidence in food labelling. For producers of regional specialities like Parma ham or Feta cheese who want to be sure that imitators cannot make false claims of origin, this work is incredibly important. There are ways to detect the origin of a particular foodstuff based on technical methods and these can also be used in the event of a major fraud case.
'TRACE had close working relationships with all the major research activities on food traceability and authenticity,' comments TRACE project coordinator Paul Brereton, Head of Food and Health Research at The Food and Environment Research Agency in the United Kingdom. 'A large part of TRACEBACK concerned demonstration of technology for tracking, tracing and verifying authenticity and quality labelling of food, and as such it was very complimentary to TRACE. TRACE members sat on the TRACEBACK advisory and evaluation panels and joint meetings were held on several cross cutting issues.'
Paul Brereton also says that reducing duplication and maximising resources are two of the benefits of collaboration among coordinators working on EU-funded research projects in the same field.
Another important aspect of traceability is bio-traceability which involves going beyond working out where food comes from but also pinpointing exactly where contamination happened. The BIOTRACER ('Improved bio-traceability of unintended micro-organisms and their substances in food and feed chains') project developed a way to point to materials, processes or actions within a particular food chain that can be identified as the source of undesirable agents. Bio-tracing has been improved significantly by better access to more comprehensive data supplies.
Co-Extra ('GM and non-GM supply chains: their CO-EXistence and TRAceability'), which brought together 52 partner institutions from 18 countries, was one project that addressed the co-existence and traceability of GM and non-GM products. The project coordinators report that while genetically modified organisms (GMOs) authorised in another jurisdiction only pose minor problems, it is GMOs that are not authorised under any jurisdiction at all that pose the most problems as they have unknown risks to health and the environment.
This research investment has resulted in Europe leading the world in best practice food traceability. Implementation of the diverse results from the largest food integrity and safety research projects ever constructed will ultimately boost consumer confidence and reduce the economic and social impact of food safety scares.
For more information, please visit:
What's for Lunch?
DG Research Agriculture portal:
Category: Project results
Data Source Provider: European Commission
Document Reference: Hoorfar, J., et al. Food chain integrity, Woodhead Publishing, 2011.
Subject Index: Innovation, Technology Transfer; Resources of the Sea, Fisheries; Regional Development; Coordination, Cooperation; Policies; Economic Aspects; Agriculture; Agricultural biotechnology ; Food; Environmental Protection; Scientific Research; Legislation, Regulations; Security; Social Aspects; Safety