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ERA CHAIR FOR ISOTOPE TECHNIQUES IN FOOD QUALITY, SAFETY AND TRACEABILITY

Final Report Summary - ISO-FOOD (ERA CHAIR FOR ISOTOPE TECHNIQUES IN FOOD QUALITY, SAFETY AND TRACEABILITY)

Executive Summary:
Food scandals, increased globalisation, diversity of choice, and the complexity of the food supply chain have created a demand for greater transparency in food production and information about where a food product or its ingredients originate. Altogether, this makes food vulnerable to fraud either through the adulteration or counterfeiting of both commodities and luxury goods and occurs at all stages of food production from raw materials to finished products. Complex supply chains also increase the number of critical points where contamination can occur. Fraud and food safety incidents put our health at risk and food recalls withdrawals, alerts and fake products cost producers, suppliers and consumers tens of billions of euros annually.
Today, analytical methods for the verification of food safety, quality authenticity play a central role in food analysis and recent years have seen a renewed interest in developing rapid and robust methods for verifying quality and authenticity, amongst them, isotopic methods play an essential role. Furthermore, modern methods produce sizeable complex data sets, which have led to the development of sophisticated chemometric methods for data evaluation that, when combined, make it possible to discriminate between an authentic and a fake product. Those researching in food safety and control know all too well that in the current complex global food system, meeting the challenges of food production while maintaining food safety and quality requires a multi- and interdisciplinary scholarly effort; i.e. building capacity at the boundaries.
The ISO-FOOD project has achieved increased visibility and competitiveness of the Jožef Stefan Institute (JSI) across the national, European and international food quality and safety landscapes. It has done this by pooling the resources of four institute departments, two CoE, the jožef Stefan International Postgraduate School (JSIPS), collaborating with national and international research institutes, industrial governmental and no governmental partners and creating a rich environment for teaching and research. The ERA Chair team have also taken full advantage of the investment made by the JSI into new infrastructure and state-of-the-art instrumentation.
The result has also been a significant increase in projects proposals and full integration into the ERA. During the project, ISO-FOOD answered 54 food-related funding calls of which the ERA Chair team received funding for nine national projects, nine European projects and four international projects. Ten projects will continue beyond ISO-FOOD, securing the sustainability of food research into the mid-2020s, while new projects are in the planning stage. Two of the national projects are a result of the ERA Chair team’s involvement in Slovenia’s smart specialisation strategy (S4) initiative – fulling one of the primary aims of the ERA Chair instrument. Further, ISO-FOOD is also participating in the National Strategic Development & Investment Partnerships (SRIP) in food (see WP6).
The ERA Chair has also put significant effort into closing knowledge gaps by creating new knowledge through performing cutting-edge multidisciplinary scientific research and by organising a series of international exploratory workshops. The outcome of our research programme is 56 peer-reviewed publications in SCI journals, two special journal editions, one patent application, an increase in the number of articles in top journals (Q1) and a doubling the average impact factor. Also, 14 PhDs and six MScs theses have profited from the project’s activities, of which six doctorates and three masters students have successfully defended their theses in addition to six postdocs trained all of whom have been active in proposing new research ideas and preparing new research proposals. The ERA Chair team presented the work of ISO-FOOD at 82 conferences in 26 countries. Research excellence is also evident from the number of awards given to ESRs and experienced researchers; so far, we have picked up three significant national awards, and five conference awards.
The ERA Chair team also established a new food curriculum to educate ESR at the JSIPS and organised several events, training workshops and summer schools. The new food curriculum established within the Ecotechnology programme of the JSIPS is making a significant contribution to the education of ESRs by offering fundamental and advanced food-related knowledge. The ERA Chair team also organised numerous TV and radio performances, open days and lectures to inform the public on the importance of food quality and safety and issues surrounding food fraud.

Project Context and Objectives:
The ERA Chair for Isotope Techniques in Food Quality, Safety and Traceability – ISO-FOOD for short – started on 01/07/2014 and has been a five-year EU pilot project co-funded through the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and national funding from the Slovenian Research Agency (Programme P1-0143). The motivation to establish an ERA Chair was to unlock the potential of the JSI to become a leading national, European and international research and education centre in the use of isotopic and chemical techniques in food safety and quality authenticity.
The project has aimed to perform cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research, including studying isotopic and elemental fingerprinting for determining authenticity and geographical origin, trace element speciation, organic contaminants, bioactive compounds, natural and artificial radionuclides, nanoparticle contamination, alternative food sources and novel materials for sensors in food applications. ISO-FOOD has also addressed the issue of collating, managing, and exploiting the vast amounts of isotopic, elemental, nutritional, and other so-called “big data” that although open and mostly digitised has become too large and complex for old-style data management tools. ISO-FOOD has done this by developing novel algorithms for extracting useful dietary, nutritional and safety information.
The ISO-FOOD project is a step-shift in how the JSI traditionally does research and development, moving from a research institute where research takes place nestled within groups within departments, to an integrated research platform, one where research occurs across departments at the institute level and beyond. ISO-FOOD is such a model.
Objectives
The ERA Chair team (consisting of leading researchers each an expert in their field) had the overarching objective of making the necessary institutional changes that would bring about excellence on a sustainable basis, and transform the JSI into a destination of choice for excellent early-stage and experienced researchers in the food safety and quality domain. ISO-FOOD’s vision is to become a leader in the application of isotopic and chemical techniques in food safety and authenticity. Its mission is to create knowledge through performing fundamental and applied research and the transfer of knowledge through education and dissemination activities. These activities include education and training of early-stage and experienced researchers and knowledge transfer to stakeholders. In practice, ISO-FOOD is not a research group but rather a unified and integrated research programme
Strategic priorities and goals
ISO-FOOD set out the following strategic priorities and the necessary goals:
Promote excellence: The intent was to perform cutting-edge scientific research, identify and close knowledge gaps, increase the output and the quality scientific publications, building networks with top institutions, to create joint research projects, to build up knowledge and human capital to promote excellence on a sustainable basis.
Attract excellent researchers: The aim has been to maintain state-of-the-art facilities and instruments to create a cross-disciplinary research environment, offer an excellent education and teaching opportunities for ESRs and experienced researchers.
Creation of the ERA Culture: Bring about institutional change, attracting excellence has also meant establishing providing equal employment opportunities and having a recruitment policy that reflects inclusiveness and the free movement of human and knowledge resources across the ERA.
Widening participation: The ERA Chair team has sought to seek competitive funding in national and international fora, using its knowledge capital to present the JSI as an attractive partner for potential consortia, to build networks and collaborations with research institutes, industry, policymakers and non-governmental organisations.
Create synergies between cohesion and research funding: The Chair’s intention has been to focus on Slovenia’s national smart specialisation strategy (S4) to develop a combination of national and international funding from research and development funds, involvement in national smart specialisation activities (programme, projects and SRIP), and to obtain structural funds for infrastructure development.
Contribute to society and the economy: The work of the Chair and the outcome of the ISO-FOOD project has been to have a positive socio-economic impact. ISO-FOOD has been about adding to societal knowledge that will directly improve food safety, quality and reduce society’s exposure to food fraud, develop new food safety-related protocols and products. ISO-FOOD is to create employment potential spillover effects from improved food control and knowledge transfer to stakeholder.

Project Results:
The ISO-FOOD work plan consists of six work packages:
Work package 1 – Coordination and management – the work package is responsible for setting up the management structure of the ERA Chair, including the Scientific Executive Committee and Management Advisory Board. It is also to oversee Legal, ethical, financial and administrative management and to facilitate internal communication, management of the project activities (except for those tasks outlined within other WPs), to communicate with stakeholders and the European Commission, and to monitor the progress and results of the project. WP1 is also responsible for risk analysis and contingency planning and perform quality control.
Work package 2 – ERA Chair constitution – the role of WP2 is the establishment the ERA Chair as an autonomous unit within the Jožef Stefan Institute, to organise the selection of the ERA Chair Holder and to Install the ERA Chairholder. Its role is also to assist the Chairholder establishment of the core team of researchers and project staff
Work completed (WP1 & 2) – ISO-FOOD successfully recruited the ERA chair and ERA Chair Staff: Chairholder, a technical officer, six two-year postdocs and sponsored three doctoral fellows. The WP1 also established the Scientific Executive Committee (ERA Chair team) and met on sixteen occasions. It also established the Management Board (MB) to provide project guidance and oversight and met officially on four occasions. The WP also prepared four periodic reports All project tasks were completed, milestones reached and all 35 project deliverables submitted to the EC portal in a timely fashion.
Work package 3 – Research and Education – represents the core part of the ISO-FOOD activities in terms of scientific research. Its role has been to build up the scientific capital through target-oriented cross-disciplinary cutting-edge food research and education aimed at ESRs and experienced researchers. New knowledge (scientific papers and IP) has been used to fill knowledge gaps and raw data to enable WP4, 5 and 6.
Work completed – WP3 has trained and co-supervised 6 two-year postdoctoral researchers, 14 doctoral students (six completed) and six MSc’s (three completed). The outcome was in the form of 56 scientific papers, 38 proceedings, one book chapters, and one patent (till date). ISO-FOOD is now active in a smart specialisation strategy (S4) programme (Food4Future) and one project. Out of the 18 national projects submitted, nine received funding. Education is a significant component of the project's mission, and WP3 successfully established new doctoral courses at the JSIPS and prepared educational and training programme within the Chamber of Commerce’s Competence Centre in Food. WP3 submitted all of its deliverables (D3.3 and D3.4).
Work package 4 – Networking and transfer of knowledge – has been responsible for efficient networking with leading researchers and filling knowledge gaps and responsible for the exchange and upgrade the knowledge of the institute through a series of thematic networking activities. The aim has been to widen participation and further integrate the JSI into the national, European (ERA) and International food control landscapes.
Work completed – In parallel, the ERA Chair has focussed on knowledge transfer activities to fellow experts in academia, industry, food government bodies, food-NGOs and the public. Workshops increase the networking ability of the staff by promoting multi-discipline and cutting-edge research; the ERA Chair team organised four thematic international exploratory workshops: Metrology workshop, Mercury in food, Isotopic techniques in food characterisation and Nanoparticles in food and co-organised three more with the MASSTWIN project. To expand its educational programme, WP4 organised four summer schools: Radionuclides in food, Food authenticity and traceability, Element speciation in food analysis, and Nanoparticles in food. Additionally, five training events were co-organised again with other projects. The ERA Chair team has also shown the ability of the JSI to compete with leading European analytical laboratories by preforming two International interlaboratory comparison exercises that included 25 laboratories. It also created a free e-Learning tool on advanced statistics that is available on the website. In terms of sustainability, WP4 has also established a central repository of data and knowledge and developed a new ISO-FOOD ontology for formally representing isotopic data. The result is that the JSI is integrated fully into ERA as a leading group in the use of isotopic and chemical techniques for the determination of food safety and quality. WP4 has submitted all of its ten deliverables.
Work package 5 – Outreach and Dissemination – the activities within this WP have been about propagating and demonstrating the achievements of the project and linking the national and international stakeholders to the ERA Chair team’s activities and results of WP3. It has also coordinated the outreach activities of other WPs by translating (level of communication) the results for different target audiences - scientific community, industry and with the public through traditional and now communication conduits. To increase the visibility of ISO-FOOD, the ERA Chair team organised the dissemination of project results, presentations at conferences, stakeholder workshops and a final conference.
Work completed – WP5 devolved the ISO-FOOD webpage and prepared project promotional materials such as flyers, posters, and a special booklet on the use of isotopes in food for the benefit of the layperson. It also organised three special brokerage events, a further five stakeholder workshops ISO-FOOD also prepared several satellite events at conferences. During the project, the work of ISO-FOOD led to 159 presentations at 82 scientific meetings in over 26 countries. To further increase visibility, the ERA Chair team also published two thematic Special Issues in journals of merit (Q1), invited speakers, and organised a conference satellite event. All the dissemination and outreach activities culminated in the first ISO-FOOD International Symposium on Isotopic and Other Techniques in Food Safety and Quality. The ERA Chair team also communicated with the industry by attending regular ministerial and European policy meetings. Much effort has gone into informing the public about ISO-FOOD via national TV and radio appearances, at regular JSI open days and science awareness events (European), and through public lectures. It also published bi-annual newsletters.
Work package 6 – Sustainability – The WP6 has been about taking the positive outcomes of ISO-FOOD to bring about the necessary institutional change to deliver excellence on a sustainable basis by defining a long-term strategy and by creating an enabling environment for WP’s 3, 4 and 5. It has involved defining the research agenda and studies focus areas, Identifying diverse funding opportunities including different research funding organisations and participating in regional development and cohesion programmes and seeking national funds for the development of research infrastructure. It has also meant collaborating with different stakeholders. WP6 has also been about maintaining quality and self-evaluation.
Work completed – WP6 has prepared a series of strategic documents (research, education, and funding), and completed three self-evaluation exercises. WP6 has also established collaborations with national and international academic institutes, industry, government and NGO organisations and organisations that form part of the knowledge triangle. The diversity of expertise within ISO-FOOD has meant that ISO-FOOD is not limited in its scope and has been able to seek funding at the EU level in Horizon 2020, EMPIR, PRIMA, INTERREG instruments and international funding (IAEA). Over the past five years, ISO-FOOD submitted 54 food-related projects responding to national, European international calls, in collaboration with partner organisations (WP3 & 6). The result has been a significant increase in projects proposals. Out of the 54 submitted, 22 projects received funding. Out of the 16 national projects submitted nine where accepted, 34 European projects were submitted of which nine were accepted, while all four international projects received funding. Ten projects will continue beyond ISO-FOOD funding, and more projects are in the pipeline, which, together with continuing partner support, will secure the sustainability of ISO-FOOD activities up to the mid-2020s. Among others, the JSI is now part of an ESFRI roadmap 2018 – METROFOOD and by creating synergy with Slovenia’s Smart Specialisation Strategy (S4) is active in one project and one programme of Slovenia S4 programme. WP6 also accredited (ISO:17025) two isotopic methods.
Summary: The work plan has foreseen by the six work packages has been accomplished. It is important to note that although ISO-FOOD comprises six work packages in actuality, ISO-FOOD has been wholly a team effort.


Potential Impact:
Summarising the achievements of ISO-FOOD, the capacity of JSI in the ERA for food safety and quality has been unlocked. It is also true that by making significant progress in the generation of knowledge, education, infrastructure and outreach, and securing funding (new project proposals) in the pipeline for the next five years, the ERA Chair team have delivered on the project goal of achieving excellence on a sustainable basis.
At the institute level, ISO-FOOD has created niches of excellence within the institute, delivering prompt responses to new challenges and the ability to open up new research fields. The ERA Chair has taken advantage of the investment in infrastructure and new instrumentation made by the JSI. The accreditation of two new isotopic methods will further allow the national nomination as the officially recognised laboratory for stable isotope measurements in food and will continue to integrate the JSI into the national and European Metrological framework. ISO-FOOD has also increased the participation of the JSI in EU projects under Horizon 2020 and other EU programmes such as INTERREG, EURAMET, PRIMA. By synergistically joining resources,
There have also been many broader societal impacts, for example, in the form of employment and income. Turning the JSI into a destination of choice for excellent researchers specifically through funding, infrastructure, technical support, the scientific community (community of practice) remains the best strategy to solve the real problem facing small widening countries like Slovenia. In this respect, ISO-FOOD will continue to help overcome the limited supply of research talent by attracting the best researchers, holding on to talent and reversing “brain drain.” To date, ISO-FOOD has funded two full-time staff members, three ESRs, six post-docs and partly financially supported another seventeen researchers involved in the project.
The intellectual output of ISO-FOOD will add considerably to the sum of societal knowledge and human capital. The project has already produced 6 doctoral students, 3 MScs and trained six postdoctoral students and will continue to train and educate the next generation of European food scientists, which will add to the competitiveness of the Slovenian science. This education representing a unique interdisciplinary and intersectoral environment in food-related research and could become an accepted model for equipping researchers with insight and the necessary skill set (competitive advantage) for obtaining employment and succeeding in their careers. By encouraging the free movement of knowledge and human capital, ISO-FOOD will enable the EU to continue to lead in the provision of rapid (isotopic and elemental) solutions and strategies in food quality and safety. It will also supply the necessary experts for food control bodies both nationally, within Europe and internationally. Upgrading research capacity and reducing the limitations of research potential in Slovenia will add to EU research competitiveness and scope.
Society as a whole will benefit from ISO-FOOD’s Cooperation with funding partners from industry, as well as education through research as practised through the Jožef Stefan International Postgraduate School and by facilitating the transfer of knowledge and know-how from academia to the industry – increasing its added value and competitiveness. When included into this are government agencies, and NGOs, the result is capacity building across the whole knowledge triangle.
ISO-FOOD has also interacted with national or regional authorities by organising education and training through summer schools, workshops, presentations at different Ministries, and participating in the Slovenian smart specialisation strategy programme (RIS3) primarily in the field of sustainable food production. The consequence of such involvement has been a strengthening of JSI connection with the food industry, while participation in the action plans of the National Strategic Development & Investment Partnership (SRIP) has provided further opportunities to participate in different projects related to industrial needs.
The methods developed during the project will lead to better food quality control (authentication) and correct labelling of foods, i.e. improving quality and protecting consumers and producers from food fraud. New knowledge about potentially hazardous organic compounds, toxic chemical species and nanoparticles will feed into improved national and European legislation and decision-making. The methods will also support the implementation and harmonisation of the European agricultural and product quality policy. Quality of measurements has been one of the main topics of ISO-FOOD and played an increasingly important role in technological and socio-economic development. It will allow producers and suppliers to demonstrate and guarantee the quality of products and services, and to promote product and process innovation. As an example, through ISO-FOOD, the JSI will play an active role in METROFOOD-RI, which through METROFOOD-PP will be a world-class pan-European distributed research infrastructure and represents the realisation of this expected impact. It will contribute to a new research approach that allows metrological data flows through networks in a way that will facilitate trade, competitiveness, quality and consumer satisfaction of food and nutrition data in Europe and beyond.
Similarly, ISO-FOOD’s newly developed advanced computer techniques for extracting knowledge from both food data and literature are applicable for not only research but also for other purposes, e.g. industrial, and policy-making — chemical properties and interactions of food components are areas that we have studied. Many chemical components, such as nutrients, occur in foods naturally, and most of them contribute to a balanced diet and eating pleasure. Components, called functional chemicals, play an essential role in food production and preservation. Moreover, they can be effectively applied to the treatment and prevention of diseases. In foods, as already pointed out, there are also chemicals, which can cause harmful effects in humans and animals. Although it is important to know which chemicals are built-in foods, most countries still lack complete and high-quality sets of food composition data. ISO-FOOD has been tackling the problem of organising food datasets and been enabling connectivity of food science with other health-related sciences. The outcome will be safer food and increased wellbeing.
Economies will benefit as ISO-FOOD has created methods that national authorities can use in establishing an appropriate traceability system to prevent food fraud and protect Slovenian and European high-quality food products that are important for European regional economies. It will be possible to demonstrate the high-quality and safety of food products increasing their economic value, while for SMEs it will help to increase their competitiveness in a global market by developing an appropriate scheme to protect the quality and origin of their products. The method developed and databases built by ISO-FOOD of authentic compounds can be used to reinforce specific quality and authenticity related schemes, such as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) certifications. Such products lead to spillover effects such as tourism, support small-scale family farming, traditional foods and production methods that are often less intensive, ecological and preserve the cultural heritage. The JSI is already working closely in Truffle hunting community of Istria to obtain such a designation.
The research and results obtained within ISO-FOOD will also have an impact on environmental sustainability, food production and public health. New functional and alternative food and feed based on microalgae, reduction of food waste and re-use of food can be a big step in increasing the sustainability of food production and the basis of building a new business all with the added benefit of reducing food waste. The application of advanced material and nanotechnology developed within ISO-FOOD offers the possibility to improve safety (increased shelf-life and monitoring – sensor technology) and the quality of products, increase resource efficiency while reducing the impact on the environment (smart packaging material).
List of Websites:
www.isofood.eu