Vulnerability Testing

Every raw material vulnerability assessment needs an output – protection measures must be put in place for any threat that has been identified as being a significant risk to food fraud.

So what options do we have?

I’ve noticed that many manufacturers are trying to put paper based audits in place as protection measures against food fraud.  The most common approach to this is a set of questions that the manufacturer asks their supplier to complete, regarding how they ensure that their product is not subject to food fraud.  This worries me a little, because if a supplier wanted to be fraudulent, then they would complete this self audit – providing the answers that were expected of them to pass.  Therefore it doesn’t really provide any protection.

In my view, the only paper based audit that can be completed is one where the manufacturer goes to the supplier and audits them.  Even this poses its own problems though, as in the worst case the supplier could provide fraudulent records as evidence during the audit.

There are other options though.

If I suggested vulnerability testing – you’ll probably think that it would be too expensive. But it doesn’t need to be.

It has been shown that the threat of a test, can actually reduce the risk of the threat occurring.  When tests were carried out without notifying the suppliers that the tests were going to be completed, the number of failures were much greater, than when the supply chain was notified and then the tests were carried out.

Due to the horse meat scandal in 2015, there has been some major developments in the type of vulnerability testing methods available – one of which is isotope testing.

Isotope testing can provide information on:

  • production methods such as organic
  • country of origin
  • adulteration of honey
  • free range or corn fed

How does it work?

Everything that grows picks up a ‘fingerprint’ of it’s environment.

It is this environmental fingerprint that can be assessed, to establish if the results are in line with what would be expected.

The environmental fingerprint contains what they call stable isotopes.  The stable isotopes are Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulphur.  It’s these stable isotopes that the lab can test for.

vulnerability testing

The labs that carry out the stable isotope testing have collated a database of ‘true’ results for each of the environmental fingerprints.  It is these ‘true’ results (called reference profile) that the sample is assessed against.  By doing this, the lab can say whether the samples stable isotope profile, is representative or not, of the reference profile that they hold on the database.vulnerability testing

If the sample is not representative it would indicate that there may be a problem with the sample, therefore allowing further investigation work to be completed.

The chart to the right is an example of what this may look like.


Food Forensics holds UKAS accreditation for stable isotope testing and they have created the following video to help explain, which features Professor Chris Elliott’s view of vulnerability testing.

Using your vulnerability assessment you can define how often testing can be completed.  It doesn’t mean it needs to be every batch, every week or even every month.  If you notify your suppliers that you will be carrying out testing and that they won’t be notified when this will take place, you can then schedule tests based on risk – which may for low risk suppliers be annually.

Isotope testing is about £375+vat, so it’s not the cheapest test, but if you are careful with ensuring that the testing is focused, the number of tests can be controlled.  Plus £375 isn’t that much when you think about the costs that could be incurred, or the damage to your business’ reputation – if there was fraudulent activity in your supplier chain.

It’s amazing how science progresses to move with the times and provides us with the hard facts that we need to make key decisions.

What do you think about vulnerability testing – is it something that your site intends on implementing?  If you have any questions about isotope testing methods, or how to establish a testing plan – I’d be happy to answer them, just use the comments section below or email me on

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