Master challenge: the UK food system

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), under the Global Food Security programme are delighted to announce the five successful grants of the ‘Understanding the Challenges of the Food System’ call.

The UK food system is part of an increasingly globalised system, which means it can often be prone to periodic scares and crises. UK consumers will be only too aware of the challenges of the food system which they experience through rising food prices as a result of weather disasters, conflicts and wars and will remember only too well scares of recent years about the provenance of meat products.

The FSA and ESRC previously identified an area of mutual interest around the challenges to the UK agri-food system, food safety, food fraud/crime and consumer trust.
Professor Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the ESRC, said: “We’re delighted to come together with the Food Standards Agency to fund innovative research into important areas which underpin UK food security. The projects that are being funded will deal with priorities such as resilience, safety and security, food price volatility and supply chain management – all of which are recognised as yielding important social science research challenges to be addressed for the mutual benefit of the food industry and consumers alike.”

The Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Guy Poppy commented “Achieving food security is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. I am particularly pleased that together with the ESRC, we are funding world class social scientists to develop an evidence base in these important but under-researched areas. The Agency believes this research will offer maximum policy relevance, as well as building strong relationships between researchers. The inception workshop will allow the researchers to discuss common themes relating to fraud, resilient food chains, consumer behaviour and an ageing population and thus allow the five projects to share knowledge and expertise throughout their projects and for the greater good of our understanding of the food system.”

The successful applications receiving funding are:

Making provisions: anticipating food emergencies and assembling the food system (ES/M003159/1)
Dr Andrew Donaldson, Newcastle University

From animal disease outbreaks, to accidental contamination, food-borne illnesses, and concerns over the provenance or ingredients of foodstuffs, food crises of one form or another are seemingly a regular occurrence. This project will look at the ways in which those involved in the production, processing, retail, management and governance of food anticipate future problems and develop plans to avoid them or deal with them. By investigating these issues the project hopes to be able to draw out realistic lessons for building a more resilient food system.

Food fraud: a supply network integrated systems analysis (ES/M003183/1)
Mr Jon Spencer, Manchester University

The aim of this research is to develop a predictive computational approach to modelling food supply chains so that the points where food fraud can occur are identified. Identifying these points of vulnerability to adulteration within the supply chain will allow regulators and retailers to take appropriate action to avoid food fraud. This project will bring together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from analytical sciences, predictive modelling, law, criminology and business studies, and will contribute to consumer confidence and trust in UK food supply chains.

Older people's perceptions and experiences of strengths and vulnerabilities across the UK food system (ES/M00306X/1)
Dr Wendy Wills, University of Hertfordshire

Like the rest of the developing world the UK is experiencing demographic change. Increasingly people are living longer and predictions say this is set to continue. A significant minority of older people have ongoing health conditions and for those aged over 85 up to two thirds have a disability or limiting long term illness. These older people might become vulnerable through the food that they eat and this should be a research priority in terms of impact on the UK food system, quality of life for individuals, better public health outcomes, reducing the burden of disease and disability, not to mention the resultant economic benefits for the UK.

Public perceptions of the UK food system: public understanding and engagement, and the impact of crises and scares (ES/M003329/1)
Ms Caireen Roberts, NatCen Social Research

The growing complexity of international food supply chains is giving rise to a new generation of risks and concerns. These encompass traditional food safety issues relating to biological and chemical contamination but last year adulteration and fraud of food re-emerged as a major issue with the horsemeat scandal. The extensive media coverage revealed not only widespread fraud but also the hitherto underappreciated complexity of the UK meat supply chain and the extent of meat imports. This project will use both qualitative and quantitative methods along with social media analysis to generate new empirical findings on public perceptions of UK food supply chains, what people's concerns are, and what influences these and how they may be best managed in the future.

Analyses of food supply chains for risks and resilience to food fraud/crime (ES/M003094/1)
Professor Christopher Elliott, Queens University Belfast

As food supply chains have become increasingly global and complex, new and challenging risks have emerged. One of the risks gaining attention from industry, governments, regulatory bodies and consumer organisations is food fraud conducted for economic gain.

In addition, current food protection systems are not designed to look for the never-ending number of potential adulterants that may show up in the food supply. As criminal activity by design is intended to elude detection, new tools and new approaches to supply chain management are called for. This project will combine theories and methods from psychology, political economy, sociology, anthropology, criminology and law, with natural science disciplines to help determine how fraud can happen and what measures could be put in place to prevent it from happening in the future.

The project will also explore how other countries deal with issues of food safety and analyse legal cases as they relate to fraud. Based on an assumption that fraudsters will exploit any intelligence gathering system it will also examine current and potential models of data collection and intelligence sharing and test their vulnerabilities to future fraudulent attacks. This will help to develop a novel data collection sharing system that is more robust and secure.


ESRC Press Office:

·         Susie Watts
Telephone 01793 413119

·         Aaron Boardley
Telephone: 01793 413122

1.      Grants will start from 1 September 2014 and will last for a period of 24 months.

2.      There were five successful applicants, who will share a grant of up to £1.87 million (at 100 per cent fEC).

3.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

4.      The Food Standards Agency ( is an independent government department responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK. The agency works with businesses to help them produce safe food, and with local authorities to enforce food safety regulations. Their aim is to ensure that food produced or sold in the UK is safe to eat, consumers have the information they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat, and that regulation and enforcement is risk-based and focused on improving public health.

5.      The Global Food Security programme is the UK’s main public funders of food-related research and training are working together through the Global Food Security programme to meet the challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable, secure supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable high-quality food using less land, with lower inputs, and in the context of global climate change, other environmental changes and declining resources.

6. Newcastle University is a Russell Group University

We rank in the top 20 of UK universities in The Sunday Times 2013 University Guide and in the 2015 Complete University Guide

Amongst our peers Newcastle is:
o 10th in the UK for student satisfaction

o Ranked 8th in the UK for Medical research power

o Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) top 20 strategic partner

94% of our students are in a job or further training within six months of graduating

We have a world-class reputation for research excellence and are spearheading three major societal challenges that have a significant impact on global society. These themes are: Ageing, Sustainability, and Social Renewal

Newcastle University is the first UK university to establish a fully owned international branch campus for medicine at its NUMed

Campus in Malaysia
which opened in 2011
Our international students put Newcastle University in the world's top 50 (ISB 2013) of global universities.

7.      About the University of Hertfordshire
·         The University is the UK’s leading business-facing university and an exemplar in the sector.  It is innovative and enterprising and challenges individuals and organisations to excel.
·         The University of Hertfordshire is one of the region’s largest employers with over 2,425 staff and a turnover of over £234 million.
·         With a student community of over 25,100 including more than 2,900 overseas students from 120 different countries, the University has a global network of over 175,000 alumni.
·         It is also one of the top 100 universities in the world under 50 years old, according to the new Times Higher Education 100 under 50 rankings 2014.

·         For more information, please visit

8.      NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.

9.      The University of Manchester, a member of the prestigious Russell Group of British universities, is the largest and most popular university in the UK. It has 20 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. According to the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, The University of Manchester is one of the country’s major research institutions, rated third in the UK in terms of ‘research power’, and has had no fewer than 25 Nobel laureates either work or study there. The University had an annual income of £807 million in 2011/12.