As one of the Global Research Institutes established at Queen's in 2016, IGFS has a remit to deliver impactful research, designed to help meet global challenges, such as food insecurity.
It does this via a vibrant and integrated research and impact environment, conducting globally competitive and sustainable research. Key examples of our impact include the Elliott Review (for UK Government) on food safety after the horsemeat scandal; determining the impact of intensive animal farming on climate change and land use; changes to EU and US food-safety legislation as a direct result of IGFS research into arsenic levels in rice; changes to animal-welfare legislation regarding crustaceans as a direct result of research into the sentience of invertebrates.
Our research clearly maps on to many UN Sustainable Development Goals, including Zero Hunger; Good Health; Clean Water; Climate Action. In the 2021 Times Higher Education Impact rankings, we were placed No 6 (out of 379 institutions) for Life Below Water; and No 11 (out of 402 institutions) for Life On Land.
The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) designated IGFS as an IAEA Collaborating Centre in 2021, recognising its global reach in food safety, authenticity and traceability.
See below for some ongoing examples of our impact:
The global herbs and spices trade is worth billions – yet it is highly vulnerable to food fraud, estimated to cost the world economy more than £20 billion per year.
Professor Chris Elliott OBE and team at IGFS have been testing herbs and spices, including sage and oregano, chilli powder and turmeric, pepper and paprika, for authenticity for almost a decade.
In partnership with the consumer magazine WHICH?, they revealed in 2015 that more than 25% of oregano selling in UK and Ireland was adulterated. They carried out this research with a blend of laboratory analyses they had developed, using mass-spectrometry and other analytical-chemical approaches. As a result, over 50 leading manufacturers and retailers, such as Sainsbury’s, began regular testing along their supply chains, using the diagnostic methods developed at IGFS. At least one prosecution for food fraud has resulted.
A follow-up survey in 2020 revealed that oregano adulteration had decreased fivefold, suggesting the earlier findings had triggered more scrutiny on the part of the food industry and food-standards agencies.
Other key findings have been that more than a quarter of sage sold via online retailers and smaller, independent shops was bulked out with non-food material such as dried leaves from olive trees; and that chilli powder had been adulterated with a carcinogenic dye.
In tandem with the new lab tests developed at IGFS, the team also developed handheld, infrared technology to enable manufacturers and processors to quickly and affordably detect adulteration, at different points along the foodchain, on site.
As a direct result of all these advances, the IGFS Asset Technology Centre became an industry-accredited lab for the detection of herb and spice adulteration (UKAS ISO 17025). The lab was also listed as a ‘Centre for Expertise’ by the UK Department of Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – the only university to hold this status. The research also resulted in the formation of a spinout company, Bia Analytical.
The success of the team in this area of food integrity directly resulted in IGFS being awarded the status of ‘Collaborating Centre’ by the UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency in 2021.
Research led by Professor Niamh O’Connell and colleagues investigated methods of improving the environment for both laying hens and broiler chickens housed in intensive systems - with direct impact on animal-welfare policies and industry standards.
Broiler chicken production is big business, with an average of 20M broilers slaughtered per month in the UK. Public perception of broiler welfare is poor and, with no legal requirements for environmental enrichment, broiler producers are creating their own 'higher welfare' systems to meet a growing consumer demand. Over the last decade, Prof O’Connell and her team have worked closely with leading industry producers to provide evidence-based advice on ways to enhance broiler housing.
One large-scale study by this research group revealed the benefits of providing windowed housing, with access to natural light leading to improved litter condition, an increase in broiler activity levels and improved walking ability. Conducted in partnership with one of the UK's Top 20 food companies, Moy Park, this was the first peer-reviewed study of its kind and is widely referred to globally in animal-welfare policy and advocacy documents.
Aggressive behaviours and keel bone injuries in laying hens are also significant welfare concerns for the egg industry worldwide, particularly as many producers are moving from caged to non-cage (free-range) systems. Large-scale research by O’Connell and colleagues in collaboration with Skea Eggs Ltd explored the ability of aerial perches to reduce aggressive behaviour and improve hen welfare under free-range conditions. The results demonstrated a clear benefit, without increasing the incidence of injuries or compromising productivity.
Subsequent research demonstrated health and welfare benefits associated with the use of straw bales, pecking objects and dustbaths.
As a direct result of the above research, one of Europe's largest chicken producers, NI-based Moy Park, has spent upwards of £12M on fitting out chicken houses with windows and perches and continues to consider research findings by this team.
The research has also informed recent developments in animal-welfare standards, including:
- Red Tractor standards for meat chickens (affecting 1 billion UK chickens per year), and to RSPCA Australia standards for meat chickens
- RSPCA Assured standards for laying hens and included in a case study in standards (affecting 1,200 farms and 23.5M laying hens in the UK)
- Major NGO-led initiative ('the Big Ask') estimated to ultimately impact 10% of US broiler production (currently approximately 920M broilers per year)
The ‘Food Fortress’ scheme was developed in response to the 2008 dioxin crisis on the island of Ireland, whereby animal feed was found to be contaminated, resulting in widespread recalling of meat, precautionary culling of more than 175,000 animals and an estimated economic cost of £240M.
The island of Ireland imports millions of tonnes of animal-feed ingredients and, as supply chains become more complex, this results in increased potential for accidental and intentional contamination, including threats from mycotoxins, pesticides and heavy metals.
Shortly after the dioxin crisis, Professor Chris Elliott and colleagues were engaged by the food industry to develop a risk-based, science-led quality assurance scheme to monitor contaminants within feedstuffs - either imported or locally manufactured. The team embarked on an intensive research programme to develop, validate and implement innovative techniques to detect and monitor a broad spectrum of feed-related contaminants, which when incorporated with a risk-based sampling approach, provided for a supply chain-wide quality assurance scheme.
Food Fortress was initially launched in 2014 and by 2019, 5 million tonnes of animal feed (valued at £1.25B) had been tested at IGFS and 80 feed companies in the UK and ROI had joined the scheme.
Testing comprises a range of analytical techniques, using high-resolution mass spectrometry-based metabolomics as an ‘early warning system’ for farm-animal exposure to dioxin contamination. A complementary suite of multi-analyte mass-spectrometry screening assays for monitoring an array of prioritised natural and man-made chemical toxins and contaminants has also been developed.
In the years since its formation, Food Fortress has been approved by both the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) for NI and The Food Standards Agency (NI). It is also used as a marketing tool by the wider NI food industry when seeking new markets globally; the NI diary sector believes it can attritube in the region of £50M sales directly to the assurances provided by the scheme.
Following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, Professor Chris Elliott OBE of IGFS was commissioned by the UK Government to conduct an independent review of the food supply system. His report delivered eight recommendations, which were accepted and acted on by UK Government. The ripple effects, in terms of governmental regulation of food safety, locally and internationally, are ongoing.
The horsemeat scandal in January 2013 highlighted the vulnerability of the food industry, resulting in a major blow to consumer confidence in meat products and supermarket products. The face value of the horsemeat scandal was £178,000 but police estimated that the true cost ran into millions. More generally, food crime costs the UK economy around £1.2B each year.
The Elliott Review underpinned a range of concerted actions taken by the government to bring about substantial and beneficial changes to how the country managed existing and current threats to food supply. As a result, the first prosecution for horsemeat contamination took place in January 2015, followed by further prosecutions.
The Elliott Report directly resulted in the establishment of:
(i) National Food Crime Unit (covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland), employing 80+ staff with an annual budget of £4M;
(ii) the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit with 16 officers;
(iii) Food Industry Intelligence Network with 45 members and a turnover of £115 billion.
In terms of the scientific impact, Prof Elliott's publication of wide-ranging research outputs, describing how to implement non-targeted testing methods for food fraud detection and their use in regulatory environments, has been pivotal to driving a major shift in UK-government attitude and policies associated with food fraud, which is ongoing.
His research team has pioneered the use of non-targeted methodologies, for example, mass spectrometric and spectroscopic technologies, capable of producing ‘food fingerprints’. Many tests based on this science have since been integrated into national and international monitoring programmes and have been used to successfully detect instances of sophisticated food fraud - to date, including beta-agonist abuse in Holland; adulteration of oils in China; and, shrimp fraud in India.