Making sure our food is safe to eat

| 27/05/2008 | Reply

BREAD and milk used to be the staple daily diet of the Birmingham
scientists whose job it is to make sure the food we buy is safe.

These
days their time is spent tasting more exotic fare – thanks largely to
the influx of new arrivals from Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Jars
of meat and sweets from Poland, cola from the Far East and a dried
squid from China can all be found in the laboratory of Stewart Davis,
principle scientific officer at Birmingham City Laboratories.

Stewart,
who’s in charge of the food and environmental analysis section of the
council run laboratory, explains: “Years ago the main things we tested
were staples like bread and milk. One person would spend most of their
day testing milk samples.

“But now we’re seeing foods we’ve never seen before.

“A
lot of products are being imported from the Far East and Eastern
Europe. I think there are four Polish supermarkets in Erdington alone.”

It’s
Stewart and his team’s job to check whether these imports are safe to
eat and that they don’t contain things like high levels of salt,
preservatives or banned colourings.

He points out: “I want to
make it clear that most of the food we see is safe. But it’s our job to
make sure all food that’s on sale meets the regulations.” The use of
colourings in foods is carefully controlled because some have been
linked to problems like cancer and hyperactivity.

The
scientists are currently keeping an eye out for a dye added to some
sausages and burgers to make them look fresher called Red 2G, for
instance.

The European Food Safety Authority has branded the
colouring, also known as E128, a ‘safety concern’ because tests have
shown it can cause cancer in rats and mice.

The scientists also check that the food we buy really does contain what it says on the tin.

In
the past Stewart and his team have discovered vegetarian food
containing bits of meat and Halal products containing pork. – though
he’s keen to point out that that is rare.

Sometimes, he says, labels are not in English: “So we have to make sure it contains what it says it does.

“If
people are buying a diet cola which contains an artificial sweetener
called aspartame, for instance, it has to be shown on the label because
some people can react to it.”

A rise in food allergies means it’s more important than ever shoppers are able to read food labels.

“Peanut
allergies can be very serious for some people so that’s the sort of
thing we look for,” he says, picking up a packet of sweets from Eastern
Europe.

The packaging bills them as Lobster Tails – not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when you think of peanuts.

But a close look at the list of ingredients, which in this case were in English, shows that the sweets contain them.

Sometimes imported food doesn’t have any ingredients listed in English.

Results
which raise concern are passed back to the city’s trading standards and
environmental health officers who can taken action.

Food labelling is one of the hot topics for food scientists at the moment.

Stewart explains: “The big focus these days is on food labelling.

“Nutritional labelling is not required, unless you make a claim that a food is low in fat.

“We
can test to see whether it is.” In fact there’s no pulling the wool
over Stewart’s eyes. Give him a jar of heather honey and he can tell
you whether the bees which made it have ever visited a heather plant or
if shoppers are being hoodwinked.

“We can analyse the grains of pollen in the honey under a microscope to check whether they come from heather.

“It’s important because heather honey usually fetches a premium price,” he adds.

Other claims Stewart and his team are investigating include those surrounding so-called superfoods.

Jars of cinnamon are lined up on his desk, which is somewhere between a kitchen and a school science lab.

It’s
been hailed as the latest health food in some quarters because of
claims that it can help reduce blood sugar levels and help diabetics.

But
what people don’t realise is that it can also contain a compound called
coumarin, which can damage your liver if taken in large doses.

Cinnamon
is being sold in capsule form. The levels in different brands can vary
widely so the scientists in Garretts Green have been analysing them to
discover whether they can create a reliable test.

Then they can check that batches of capsules claiming to improve your health aren’t actually damaging it.

Stewart’s job is never dull. Counterfeit food and drink is another area where his expertise is called in to play.

The
father of three from Sutton Coldfield says: “We might be asked to test
a bath of vodka being sold under the name of a big brand like Smirnoff
because there are concerns a landlord could have decanted another brand
into the bottle.

“We also get people who’ve bought booze at car boot sales coming to us because they’re worried it’s not the real thing.

“We once had to test a giant magnum of Bacardi someone had bought on eBay.

“They
were convinced something was wrong with it. It turned out to be OK but
you can never enjoy something if you’ve bought it from an uncertain
source.”

The other major investigations carried out by the food lab is into consumer complaints.

Stewart
says sit’s one of the most satisfying. On his bookshelf is the sort of
gruesome photo album you wouldn’t get out at family get togethers.
Pictures include a three inch Egyptian locust found in a bag of salad,
rodent droppings and a plaster baked into a sliced loaf and neatly
chopped into three.

It’s Stewart’s job to establish what the foreign object is and how it got there.

“You always have to be aware that someone might be trying to get a retailer into trouble,” he adds.

“The most blatant example I’ve seen involved someone complaining that they’d found a biro in a burger.

“It didn’t take long to work out that they must have pushed it in themselves.

“We can tell under a microscope whether something’s been baked into a food or added later.”

Sometimes, he says, consumers can turn out to be the cause of the problem without even realising!

“We
sometimes find that the foreign object people have found in their food
is a temporary crown which has fallen out while they’ve been eating
without them even realising!”

Or they’re worried about nothing.
“Sometimes people think they’ve found a cockroach in their curry and it
turns out to be a spice like cardamon. The fibres can sometimes look
like an insect.”

Stewart adds: “We receive hundreds of food complaints every year.

“We try to deal with them quickly because obviously people are worried.

“It’s nice when we can reassure people.”

Category: Europe, Halal Integrity

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