The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently published the findings of a targeted surveillance sampling program conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic to identify emerging food safety risks and increase knowledge of the food system.

The program focused on six commodity groups with suspected authenticity or safety issues enabled by the effects of the pandemic on the global food supply chain. Specifically, FSA and its partner laboratories investigated:

  • Mince and processed meat composition and speciation
  • Fish and fish product speciation
  • Spice and herb authenticity
  • Basmati rice and durum wheat authenticity
  • Undeclared milk
  • Undeclared gluten.

A total of 1,010 samples were collected across England and Wales during 2020 from national supermarkets, independent retailers, and e-commerce vendors. Sampling was targeted at products and Food Business Operators (FBOs) of highest risk. The samples were analyzed for authenticity, adulteration, and contamination, and 82 percent (829) were found to be compliant. Samples were recorded as noncompliant when:

  • Meat and fish samples tested for speciation contained DNA from a non-stated species (a threshold of 1 percent was used for meat samples)
  • Meat samples tested for composition did not have a qualitative meat declaration, or had a low meat content, excess fat, or other labelling irregularities
  • Herbs and spices tested for adulteration contained extraneous material such as damaged or unwanted plant parts, dirt, or foreign substances
  • Non-basmati rice varieties were detected in basmati rice samples or if the marked variety was not at least 97 percent of the product
  • Any undeclared milk protein was detected in dairy-free products.

The majority of noncompliant samples were due to product composition. Notably, the compliance rate for large FBOs was higher (92.8 percent) than for smaller businesses. Specifically, one third of samples bought online did not meet regulatory standards, whereas one fifth of samples bought from smaller retailers, and fewer than one in eight from large FBOs, were reported as unsatisfactory.

A total of 300 minced and processed meat products were tested for speciation and composition. No horsemeat was detected in any of the samples, suggesting that the food security measures put in place following the multinational 2013 horsemeat food fraud scandal are preventing the undeclared introduction of horsemeat into the food chain.

Of the meat samples tested, 20 percent contained meat species that the consumer would not expect to find, with beef products having the lowest level of contamination and goat having the highest proportion of adulterated products.

Fewer fish samples than meat samples tested for speciation were found to be noncompliant, with 96 out of 100 products reported as satisfactory. The four noncompliant samples were all sold as haddock.

A total of 375 samples of herbs and spices were analyzed using microscopy to check for authenticity, four of which had missing or substituted ingredients. Approximately 10 percent of samples were reported as noncompliant due to high proportions of extraneous plant matter rendering the quality of the product as unacceptable.

Milk-free products (140) and gluten-free flours (30) were tested for the presence of the respective allergens. All of the alternative dairy products and gluten-free flours were compliant. Milk was detected in six dark chocolate samples, one chocolate truffle sample, and one popcorn sample.

Any foods found to be unsafe were reported immediately to FSA so that action could be taken. FSA also reviewed all of the results to identify areas of emerging risk and inform post-pandemic priorities.