Food for Thought: Forensics & Food Fraud

Food for Thought: Forensics & Food Fraud

Recently, organisation Food Forensics became the first laboratory of its kind in the UK to receive UKAS accreditation, which brings me to this post. Some might ask, what does food have to do with forensics? Perhaps a perfectly valid question with the traditional bloodied crime scene on a dark night in mind. However the application of forensic science is growing continuously, including in tackling problems of food fraud.

Many Europeans will remember the food scandal arising in 2013 in which horsemeat was somewhat shockingly detected in a range of food products (obviously in products where horsemeat should not have been popping up). Or perhaps less well-known, the 1858 Bradford sweets poisoning, in which a batch of humbugs was accidentally made using arsenic instead of a sugar substitute, resulting in the poisoning of numerous people. Common mistake to make I’m sure! Concerns over foodstuffs have always been prevalent, but it is only in relatively recent years that advanced analytical techniques have been available to apply to this field of work.


Organisations are now carrying out research and analyses of food and beverages to validate their composition. Of particular note is the use of stable isotope analysis to determine the isotopic composition of a sample. As a brief reminder, isotopes are atoms of the same chemical element (same number of protons but different number of neutrons, thus giving them slightly differing masses). Stable isotopes have a natural abundance which is altered in different locations to a different extent, a process known as fractionation. This will result in samples (whether it be samples of food, plants or anything else) acquiring different ratios of isotopes. Stable isotope analysis examines these non-radioactive isotopes to help establish the isotopic composition of a sample, which can then be compared to others.

With this information available, it is possible to establish the origin of food products. Whereas the origin of a product may seem benign, realistically if you don’t know where your food has come from, you can’t say much about the safety of food. By determining the stable isotopic compositions of food samples and comparing them to known standards, the contents of a sample can be validated or refuted. Some researchers have compiled isotopic data for different regions into a kind of map (sometimes referred to as an “isoscape”) which shows the varying isotopic data throughout different areas. With data such as this at hand, it may be possible to establish the origin of a food sample based on its isotopic composition and how that compares with the isotopic data of particular areas. Using this analytical method, it may be possible to not only investigate the country or even region of origin of a food product, but also further details such as if it is organic.

As an example, the James Hutton Institute based in Scotland has conducted research into the hydrogen and oxygen isotopic composition of Scotch whisky, aiming to prove that fraudulently-produced whisky made outside of Scotland will be detectable if not made with water from within and around Scotland. Whisky made from water sourced elsewhere will have a different isotopic “fingerprint”. It is applications like this that allow for scientists and regulators to crack down on food fraud, ensuring both safety in food supply and preventing food-related criminal activities.


Food Forensics. [online][Accessed 12 Feb 2015] Available:

Earth Magazine. Cold case files: forging forensic isotopes. [online][Accessed 12 Feb 2015] Available:

Cambridge Network. Food forensics achieves UKAS accreditation focussed on combating food fraud. [online][Accessed 12 Feb 2015] Available:

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