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Secondment at Food Forensics

By Alicia Macan Schonleben, University of Antwerp.

Food Forensics: Norwich, UK

For my secondment at “Food Forensics” I went to Norwich, which is in the UK. Norwich lies in the east of England in Norfolk and is small city with a population of around 140,000 people. It has a beautiful old city centre with lively shops and cafes, a castle and stunning nature all around. It is about 30 minutes away from the sea and 2 hours from London, which gave me the chance to see one of the other ESRs, Nayyer!


Nayyer and me meeting in London


Norwich, UK.

“Food Forensics”, where I was staying, is a company working on food authenticity, safety and security and traceability. One of the techniques they are using to investigate that is stable isotope ratio analysis (or SIRA). This technique is based on the fact that most elements have stable isotopes (i.e. the same element, but with a varying number of neutrons), which unlike unstable radioisotopes do not decay. The compositions of these isotopes were fixed when the earth was formed. They can, however, slightly be altered by biological, chemical, or physical processes and these differences in the ratios of the isotopes can then be measured.


During my stay, I had the opportunity to work with this technique and learn a lot about its uses and applications. The application range of SIRA is very wide. It can be used for food fraud, but also for example for forensic cases or in archaeology. At “Food Forensics” they use it to detect whether the food we are eating is actually the product we are buying or if the organic pork from Spain we just bought is actually pharmaceutical-fed pork from Denmark.


Weighing out 1 mg samples in tiny little silver capsules for SIRA analysis.


I had a great experience at “Food Forensics” and in England in general. The last time I lived in England was 7 years ago, so even before the Brexit referendum. Therefore, it was extremely interesting to see the comparison of before and after, and also how the country handles its current issues caused by the pandemic and by the war. Talking to the locals about politics and culture really taught me a lot about the country and its current state. Additionally, it was a very exciting time to be in Britain and to witness both the changes in the government and the country’s mourning of one their most influential person, the Queen.

At “Food Forensics” I learned a lot about the technique SIRA itself, but also how much work and preparation is needed before the actual analysis (freeze-drying, milling, defatting, weighing, etc.), and how much work is needed afterwards, in form of statistical analysis. But I also learned that these steps are worth the effort because it is a powerful tool to investigate your samples. It was also great to get insights into a company and into the non-academic sector, to learn about the procedures in the industry and to see what the work environment is like. It was very interesting to see how the lab of a company operates, especially in the food sector. I really appreciate all the time and effort everyone at “Food Forensics” put into my stay and I want to thank them all for their help and support. I had a great time and I learned a lot.

All in all, it was a great experience and I thank everyone at Food Forensics for the warm welcome and for having me!

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