18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

1 July 2014

Isotope fingerprint complete

Scientists working to create isotope fingerprints of all egg production in the United Kingdom say they now have a complete picture of the country.

Longhand Isotopes has been working with the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA) to collect and test samples of eggs from farms all across the United Kingdom. The aim was to establish a database that would enable Longhand to carry out routine testing to identify whether eggs being sold as British were actually produced in this country. Longhand says that the database is now functional and it is being used to test egg samples on supermarket shelves. Longhand is carrying out tests for a number of leading supermarkets.

"We do now have enough reference material," said Roger Young, managing director of Longhand Isotopes.

"We have taken samples from 2,500 farms, including 350 organic farms and we now have a working reference library for the UK, for Ireland and

for the continent. The library is now being used to check eggs on sale in retailers."

The developments at Longhand came as the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) decided to follow BFREPA in throwing its weight behind isotope testing. BEIC has said that samples of eggs would be taken from all new laying farms joining the Lion scheme and tested in a move to improve the traceability of Lion eggs still further. Samples from all existing laying farms in the scheme would be taken when they were audited and a random selection would be tested each month. BEIC has said that this would enable a database to be established which would be regularly renewed.

The accreditation scheme Laid in Britain started working with Longhand Isotopes more than a year ago, and in November last year BFREPA gave the go ahead for its members to provide egg samples to enable Longhand to build a comprehensive picture of the United Kingdom. Robert Gooch, BFREPA's director of policy, said that what Longhand was doing was important work that could only benefit free range egg producers in this country. "By providing the samples we will make the database more accurate and that will give British producers some reassurance that if a retailer claims the eggs are from Yorkshire or another part of this country they were not produced in Italy or Germany," he said, explaining why BFREPA had decided to throw its weight behind the creation of a nationwide database.

Food traceability has become an important issue for consumers since the country was rocked by the horse meat scandal last year. Food sold as beef was found to contain horse meat that had been transported the breadth of Europe to find its way into the UK food chain. Leading supermarkets were forced to strip offending items from their shelves. They promised to tighten up on traceability and source more food produced in Britain. Isotope testing is a scientific technique that enables a test to show whether or not food products on retail shelves have, in fact, been produced in Britain.

Not only will isotope testing show whether an egg was produced in the UK, Germany, France or another country, but it will also identify the region of a country in which an egg was produced. The test is based on the fact that isotopes in drinking water are different from country to country and from region to region. The water drunk by the hen shows up in the egg it produces and using the egg in baked products makes no difference to its identifiable characteristics. The test will show, for example, where the eggs used in a quiche were produced.

"We now have enough reference material to be able to tell whether an egg was produced in the UK, in Ireland or another country," said Roger. "We also have enough to be able to tell whether an egg was produced in the South West or Yorkshire or Scotland for example," although he said that differences in isotopes did not always correspond with political boundaries. In the case of the UK, however, isotopes were different from those across the other side of the English Channel or the North Sea.

The test used by Longhand has already had some success in identifying wrongly labeled food. The company has been working with the British pig industry for some time and testing carried out by the company showed that pork chops being sold in Tesco as British were, in fact, from the Netherlands.

Longhand is also working with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to look at the geographic origin of foods claiming to be from the UK. The FSA has so far not included eggs on the list of foods to be tested but it has commissioned tests on beef (including burgers), pork, lamb, tomatoes, apple juice and honey. The FSA has said it wants to check the accuracy of current origin claims on food labels to ensure that consumers can be confident that food labeled as from the UK is what it claims to be.

In its work with BFREPA, Longhand started collecting egg samples shortly before Christmas, visiting the farms of the first BFREPA members to volunteer for the scheme. Sampling involved the collection of half a dozen eggs from each farm.


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