A group of experts has identified persistent issues with allergen testing and depleted resources, skills, scientific capability and sampling as key drivers influencing the food and feed sector.

A total of 43 stakeholders including representatives from manufacturers, distributors, retailers, importers, regulators, legal and government met in London earlier this year to discuss priorities for the Government Chemist program 2020 to 2023.

Attendees said allergens will continue to be an issue as intolerances increase in U.K. consumers. Climate change may drive introduction of new ingredients or varieties such as drought resistant crops leading to new food allergies. App-based restaurant intermediate delivery services could increase risk of allergic reactions if customers are not able to enquire directly about ingredients.

Technical concerns raised by workshop participants included cross reactivity issues with allergen testing and guidance on reporting of allergen results.

Food fraud and resource concerns
Increasing food security and sustainability concerns and legal responsibilities were covered, especially relating to a rise in food fraud in a global market, heightened by online shopping, which makes traceability, international enforcement and monitoring difficult. An economic downturn and increase in the cost of food would also be an incentive to adulterate food. A changing climate may result in reduced crops and increased food prices, leading to likely fraud rises.

Some participants feared more austerity measures may further impact enforcement through reduced funding for Port Health Authority, Trading Standards, and Public Analysts (PA) roles. There has been a continued decrease in the number of samples taken by local authorities as funding has been reduced, which is diminishing the capacity of the PA service across the U.K. and its capability to keep up with scientific developments.

The Government Chemist program focuses on preventing errors in measurement science that would have adverse impact on consumers, businesses and the criminal justice system.

More than 250 ideas were gathered in an initial phase and other priority areas included the impact of alternatives to plastic packaging materials, point of use analysis technologies and lack of trust in emerging technologies and the databases they use.

Brexit and trade deals
The main political theme related to the U.K. leaving the European Union. Brexit was seen to provide a potential cost increase and increased security risk for ensuring the safety and quality of food. Lack of access to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment data and food standards database, and reduced ability of the U.K. to influence emerging EU standards were major considerations.

Trade deals allowing import and export of products with different legislation may require new tests and standards and different tariffs will become a driver for origin fraud, according to the stakeholders. Potential changes in trade and foods imported post EU exit could mean increased controls.

Increasing consumer awareness of the Government Chemist program could mean more complaints are received from the public about products they have purchased.

Stakeholders expressed the need for rapid, non-targeted, point-of-test screening methods for officials and food business operators (FBOs), to improve testing and help manage changes in logistics that impact on border checks.

The subject of the consumer as the analyst using devices such as smartphones was covered in the workshop but experts warned there was a need for proper validation and guidance.

Based on identified priorities, the Government Chemist will prepare a draft future work program for further prioritization by a group of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in November 2019 so work can start in April 2020. The Government Chemist program is funded by BEIS with an annual budget of £1.1 million ($1.4 million).

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