Chemical engineers provide all the necessary building blocks of a successful brand such as consistency, standardisation, safety, quality and sheer volume.
This is certainly the case in the food industry. Just look what happens when it all goes wrong.
The European horse meat scandal, false advertising of farmed salmon as wild salmon in the US, 1,700 tonnes of manuka honey being produced in New Zealand but 10,000 tonnes being sold globally, meat suppliers in China distributing meat past its expiry date and in Italy the passing off of substandard olive oil as extra virgin; are all examples of where brand consistency has been lost.
These incidents don’t just result in a loss of trust and consumer confidence. There’s a financial price to pay as well.
The cost of meat safety violations in China resulted in food conglomerates like Yum! and global high street brands like McDonalds losing share value . The European horse meat scandal caused a 43 per cent drop in burger sales in the UK alone.
When comes to food, consumers really do care, with food integrity and authenticity bringing new challenges for the sector.
Traditional methods to assess food integrity have used measures such as sensory evaluation and chemical analysis to test products.
Sensory evaluation, looking at food or smelling it, is commonly used as an easy test of quality. For example the Italian Carabineri Police have been specially trained to identify olive oil fraud by becoming experts in olive oil quality. However, sensory evaluation is highly subjective and depends on the skill of the evaluator.
Chemical analysis can use DNA to identify the origins of products; for example horse meat was identified in food products by testing a sub-sample with DNA analysis. This removed subjectivity from testing, however, DNA testing is costly as it requires technical analysis and the sending away of samples. Only a sub-sample of the food produced is tested in this process, so the majority of food remains unexamined.
There is a need to use a fast, non-destructive, real-time, in-line monitoring method on all food produced.
Improved measures of testing food authenticity have been put in place by chemical engineers. An example of this is using near-infrared (NIR), a non-destructive method of testing the absorbance of certain wavelengths of light to identify the source of the product.
NIR can be used to test liquid samples, ground and relatively small solid samples and large samples that require non-destructive or non-invasive methods.
It has been suggested that liquid samples, like olive oil, could use NIR to test their geographical origin and that this could be applied to set up a quick and simple quality control system.
A way of testing fish species in-line using NIR has been developed that can be used on fish being frozen or processed. This removes the risks of just testing a random sample and offers a non-destructive process.
Chemical engineers are helping to improve public confidence in food by applying NIR, X-ray inspection and other methods to test food authenticity during production.
IChemE’s technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, identifies the need to improve and promote food quality and safety. Food is a key part of the work of the chemical engineer and needs us to drive these efforts forwards.
If you are working on improving food authenticity please get in touch and tell us your story.