New test will verify if food is organic

SHAUN LOWTHORPE A Norfolk based science team has developed a groundbreaking test designed to block unscrupulous traders from fraudulently claiming that food is organic.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

A Norfolk-based science team has developed a ground-breaking test designed to block unscrupulous traders from fraudulently claiming that food is organic.

With the global market in organic food worth £15bn, researchers at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) and UEA believe the test could offer an effective way of determining the organic origins of food on the supermarket shelves.

Dr Simon Kelly, from IFR, who has worked on the test with the UEA's Alison Bateman and Mark Woolfe, of the Food Standards Agency, said authentication of organic food, is currently based on a paper trail of inspection and certification from farm to fork.

While the sign in the supermarket aisle indicates if food is organic, there has been no easy way to tell if organically grown fruit or vegetables are authentic and not a mislabelled version of a cheaper, conventionally grown crop.

The test would help corroborate any suspicions where foul play is suspected, where the paper trail alone does not yield sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

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Conventional fertilisers used in intensive farming leave a characteristic 'nitrogen signature' in food and the research team studied differences in the nitrogen composition found in lettuces, tomatoes, carrots and mushrooms of both conventional and organic farming.

That helped determine whether the crop was grown with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser - a practice banned in organic farming.

"It's pioneering in terms of food authentication," Dr Kelly said. "At the moment all inspectors can do is look for a paper trail which shows there is evidence that fraud has taken place. The tests would give extra intelligence to the agencies so the Food Standards Agency could commission a survey showing that the food on the supermarket shelf is 'kosher'."

With producers, wholesalers and retailers able to secure higher prices for organic goods, there are fears that the unscrupulous will try to profit from the growing market by passing off conventionally grown produce as organic.

The test, reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, could be important in providing evidence on authenticity, helping to protect both consumers and organic growers.

"Although it's not 100pc effective, it would act as a disincentive to those dishonest traders and that means consumers stand less chance of getting ripped off," Dr Kelly said.

"If we had funding now, I suspect we might be in a position to have a reliable test for some crops within 12 months. When the test has been made more reliable then we may get to the stage where it can be used routinely in addition to the organic certification system."

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