The increase in global trade has elevated the potential for food fraud, food safety, health fears, and raises concerns over quality control, damage to a company’s reputation and subsequent lost revenue.
We live in a world where food is exported and imported every day, with no way of knowing if the origin of a product is legitimate.
The true origin of wine, spirits, meat and even baby food can all be falsified. So for instance, Italian olive oil may actually originate in Morocco, British beef may be from Australia, or even worse, vodka of an unknown origin may be tainted with methanol.
“In the Czech republic last month, distilled alcohol was tainted with methanol, causing the deaths of 19 people. The government imposed prohibition as authorities tried to trace the origin of the poisonous alcohol (believed to be vodka), with great difficulty.”
In 2008, toxic melamine from China was found in US baby formula. Around ninety percent of the infant formula sold in the US was contaminated with melamine which is linked to kidney failure.
The BBC’s Anna-Louise Taylor claims forensic scientists are now finally clamping down on food fraud, which costs millions in lost revenue and risks the health and safety of the public.
Most food supply chains use paper-based systems to trace the origin of food, such as barcodes, which only show the route a product has traveled and how.
But a company called Oritain in New Zealand has developed a scientific origin system which maps and catalogues “food fingerprints“. And according to Dr. Helen Darling, from Oritain, proof of origin “cannot be faked”.
Oritain’s scientific liaison officer Rebecca McLeod says it ties food and drinks back to their geographic origin, by measuring the geochemical fingerprint of an apple, for instance, as well as the fingerprint of the soil it grew in, and that of the surrounding atmosphere.
“We look at the concentrations of a whole suite of different metal elements – present in the soil, and get introduced by things like fertilisers, and taken up by plants, and we can trace them to animals that eat plants as well.
“The likelihood of two regions having exactly same soil type and fertilisers is very very slim,” she says.
McLeod says infant formula or wine produced in a factory incorporates lots of different ingredients, and they can characterize each batch of that product, based on the geochemical signature.
Once the food or drink profile has been developed, it is recorded and safely stored.
“Once we’ve got that in place, it’s a quick process to analyse a suspect sample that is sent to us. The idea is we do all of the groundwork before there’s a problem,” she explains.
In China, US and Peru asparagus breeders can potentially sell poor quality seed, which can reduce yields by 20-30-%.
Dr Peter Falloon, the managing director of asparagus breeders Aspara Pacific, says his company overcomes this by having the characteristic biochemical profile of his company’s seed measured.
That way “growers in developing countries can simply send a suspect sample of 20 seeds to be analysed to see if they match the breeders’ stock, and find out for sure if they are buying the real deal.”
Peter Cox, the general manager for New Zealand Honey Specialties, explains:
“Some honeys being sold around the world have had sugars added, there have been honeys supplied with traces of antibiotics in them and some honeys have not been ‘true to label’ (the pollen source has been different to what has been recorded on the label).”
Whole Foods was recently accused of selling organic frozen vegetables, under its 365 brand, that were picked and packaged in China.
In addition to Chinese frozen vegetables, Whole Foods also sold Chinese “organic” sunflower seeds, pine nuts, bottled teas, and soy beans.