A Yorkshire company is one of the world’s leading lights when it comes to verifying the provenance of everything from timber to caviar. Jeannie Swales went to find out more.
How much do you care about the things that you buy? Does it matter to you that they come from where it says they do on the label – or even that they’re produced in the way that’s claimed?
In an increasingly global economy, when we can buy things from just about any part of the world at the click of a button, provenance matters to many of us, and for many different reasons.
It might be ethics: you want to be confident that your breakfast egg was laid by chickens free to roam and eat healthy food. Perhaps it’s your own health: a lot of us still recall the twin shocks of the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises around the turn of the Millennium. Or maybe you have environmental concerns about the decimation of the world’s forests due to illegal logging.
One small company in North Yorkshire is leading the world in innovative ways of discovering whether raw materials – from wine and caviar, to timber and ivory – are what they say on the tin.
Agroisolab UK is tucked away on a tiny business park at Welburn, near Castle Howard, where it tests and verifies the provenance of such things.
They do this by using stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA) which scientists use to test everything from a piece of meat to a spoonful of caviar. This gives the specimen a set of ‘signatures’ which can then be compared against a huge database of samples to determine whether a pork chop, for example, has come from a pig reared in Devon or Dundee.
Roger Young, Agroisolab UK’s CEO, says they do the biggest range of signatures in the world. “It’s comparative technology, so we have a database to compare against – which means taking a lot of samples. We have to go to the farm and take an egg from the line, or go to an abattoir and take a slice of meat from the carcass.
“It’s a slow process and there’s a lot of travel – the database has to be representative of a whole country. You can’t get 50 samples from Cornwall and say you’ve got England – you have to get four from Cornwall, and four from Leicester and four from East Anglia, and so on.”
Young, a zoologist by training and a former farmer by trade, describes the history of the company against the backdrop of foot-and-mouth, which shocked the authorities into introducing new standards of traceability for livestock.
“They brought in whole systems of assurance and certification – the world we live in today. You have an audited process for a complicated product like minced meat. The documentation will tell you that this is beef, it was reared here, killed there, boned out and made into mince here... and then ‘horsegate’ came along and proved that it could all be a lie.”
He’s referring to the ‘horsegate’ scandal in 2013 in which many meat products advertised – and certified – as being beef turned out to be partly, or in some cases entirely, horsemeat.
“What it showed us is that ‘what it is’ on paper sometimes isn’t true. The thing that shocked everyone was the scale they were able to get away with it – one supermarket had to incinerate 10 million burgers.
“And the reason they got away with it is because there could be a disjoint between the bit of paper and the product. People were saying ‘it must be true, I have a certificate’ – they trusted the paper.”
Charlie Watkinson works as a biochemist at the lab. “Even now, we’ll say to people ‘we believe that there’s a risk that there might just be something wrong with the product you’re selling, and it’s worth checking’, and they won’t believe it.”
“It’s about who cares,” adds Young. “We want to know what it is, how it was produced, and where it comes from. The ‘what it is’ and the ‘where it comes from’ are enshrined in law – it’s a criminal fraud to lie about them. If you knowingly sell Danish bacon as English, that’s a crime.
“There was a big egg scandal a few years ago when a guy went to jail. Think about it: you can get 100,000 eggs on a truck. The cheapest egg you can buy in a supermarket in this country is about 6p; the most expensive, about 50p. So there’s an opportunity to buy an egg for 6p, and sell it at 50p. But everybody says ‘there’s a number on that egg, how can there possibly be any fraud?’ Well, all you have to do is buy eggs which haven’t got numbers on them, and stick numbers on them! And that’s exactly what this guy was doing.”
Already leaders in establishing food provenance, Agroisolab is now forging ahead into an area which Young believes will be even bigger – timber fraud.
They’re working on a project with Kew Gardens to establish a huge database of specimens of woods from around the world. “A lettuce goes from a field to the supermarket shelf within a day. But a piece of wood might have been felled five years ago, sent from a mill to a merchant to an exporter, then to, say, Vietnam to be made into furniture. By the time you buy it in the UK, it’s travelled a chronological and physical distance that makes it completely anonymous.”
The World Bank estimates that fraud in timber is somewhere between £35bn and £70bn a year. “We are probably the only company in the world right now supplying contracts to authenticate the origin of timber. The challenge for us now is building the database – it covers the entire world – and how do we collect reference samples?”
Agroisolab is now working on a project with Kew Gardens to establish a huge database of specimens of woods from around the world.
“We’re now in the third year of a programme funded by the American government to build those databases, working very closely with Kew Gardens – they’ll be hosting the physical samples, we’ll have the electronic database –and the whole world, including enforcement agencies, will be able to compare against it.
“It’s so exciting. Kew can take a slice across and a slice with the grain, and their wood anatomists can tell us exactly what it is, and then we put together a report saying this is what it is, truly, and this is where it’s from, truly – and does that match what you’ve been told?
“One of the things with wood is it can be stolen. It might be ancient forest, and a single tree might be worth $50,000 [£35,000]. They bribe a local politician, he tells his rangers not to go to that part of the forest – and we might be talking about an area the size of Wales – they go in and set up a mill and what comes out is truckloads of finished timber they didn’t even buy – high-quality, low-cost timber flooding the market over here.
“We’re currently talking to Sweden, the States and Taiwan about this – so we’re now talking about representing not just companies, but entire countries.”
For more information go online at agroisolab.com
Substances put to the test by lab
Ivory: “There is no declaration made as to where ivory has come from, because the trade is illegal – so we’ve had to build a new set of predictive statistics. We take samples and we’re able to narrow down where in Africa we think it’s from, and we work with a university to determine how old it is” – Charlie Watkinson, biochemist.
Vanilla: “There’s a shortage at the moment which can lead to fraud. We have what we think is the only technology in the world that can take vanilla out of a finished product like ice cream and we can say not only where it comes from but also whether it’s synthetic” – Roger Young, Agroisolab CEO.