QUB scientists support major African food fraud investigation

Food security scientists at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) have helped identify the cause of a humanitarian crisis and avert a larger catastrophe in Uganda.

Researchers at the university’s Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) were called in to support an investigation after a major food-poisoning incident in Uganda in March 2019, which killed five people and saw hundreds hospitalised.

The incident was linked to the distribution of specialised nutritious foods by the World Food Programme (WFP).

The long-life nutrient-dense foods are used to combat malnutrition among vulnerable groups, such as infants, adolescent girls and nursing mothers in developing countries.

It was thought that one of the food items – a fortified soya and corn product called ‘Super Cereal’ – might have been the source of both outbreaks of foodborne illness.

This caused two separate crises as the Super Cereal supply chains for the two incidents appeared totally different.

Super Cereal deliveries worldwide had to be suspended, leaving many tens of thousands of people without adequate food or nutrition. Super Cereal is distributed to around five million people every year.

Food fraud

Working alongside WFP and the US Food and Drug Administration, Prof. Chris Elliott OBE, Dr. Simon Haughey and their team at IGFS was able to detect lethal plant toxins known as ‘tropane alkaloids’ in samples of the Super Cereal from the first outbreak.

The identification of DNA from jimsonweed, a plant in the nightshade family, provided further evidence as the seeds of this plant contain high levels of tropane alkaloids.

The team was able to trace the contaminants from the outbreak back through complex, international supply systems and to identify Turkey as the country where the affected Super Cereal was produced and became contaminated.

Just when the crisis seemed to be coming to an end the second outbreak occurred in a refugee camp in the North of Uganda.

As the Super Cereal going into this region was from a completely different supply chain, the WFP had to take the decision to suspend all supplies of Super Cereal.

Prof. Elliott and his team, however, suspected that some form of fraud had occurred and were able to show that both outbreaks were caused by contaminated ingredients from the same batches produced in Turkey.

The findings allowed the WFP to make millions of dollars of the unaffected batch of Super Cereal available, helping restore vital food aid.

The group has published an account of this research in the journal Food Control.

Commenting on the ongoing investigation, Prof. Elliott said: “We were delighted to be able to support this investigation as we hold the WFP and their work in the highest esteem.

“Our approach to investigate the incidents was based on using the combined strengths of many forms of analytical chemistry.”