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  • Crown Capital Eco Management- Food fraud tackled by forensic scientists


    Imagine tucking into a fine fillet of "British" beef, only to learn it actually came from Australia. Or drinking "French" wine that actually came from California.

    What if the "Italian" olive oil you pour over the accompanying salad originated in Morocco?

    That might not be so bad, you may think.

    But what if a bottle of vodka you'd purchased in good faith is tainted with methanol, making it lethal to drink?

    Or the baby food you feed your youngest is not what the label on the jar said it is?

    As global trade has increased, so has the potential for food fraud, where fraudsters lie or hide the true provenance of produce.

    Alongside food safety and health fears, its raises concerns over quality control, reputational damage and lost revenue, and puts the spotlight on illegal activity.

    Now some firms are taking to using scientists, a type of food "crime scene investigators", to tackle the issue.

    Faking it

    In a world where food is exported and imported every day, how do you prove that the origin of a product is legitimate?

    A company in New Zealand has developed a scientific origin system which maps and catalogues "food fingerprints".

    "What we do needs to be able to stand up in court," says Dr Helen Darling, from Oritain.

    Most food supply chains use predominantly paper-based systems to trace the origin of food, such as following barcodes.

    But while these show the route a product has travelled and how, and "whatever kind of details you want to capture in that system", says Dr Darling, Oritain's 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 say, an apple, 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.

    Antonio Pasquale is passionate about making sure 100% of his wine is from his winery

    "The likelihood of two regions having exactly same soil type and fertilisers is very very slim," she says.

    The firm also can analyse some manufactured products, in "batch profiling".

    "Something like infant formula or wine produced in a factory incorporates lots of different ingredients. We can characterise each batch of that product, based on the geochemical signature," explains Ms McLeod.

    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.

    Each product is given a unique number which can be displayed on packaging or stickers.

    Dr Helen Darling says it enables quick comparisons to root out any goods that aren't "true to label".

    "Whilst our logo itself can be counterfeited, any product with our label on it or our brand on it, we would have authentic data and an authentic archive sample of that product. If we don't, we know immediately that it's a counterfeit product - that in itself is a deterrent to people."

    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.

    Would an origin system have made it easier?

    The EU does have an agricultural product quality policy, which allows foods and drinks to be assigned a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) or Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) category.

    But this only applies to certified products and would not have helped in the case of counterfeit alcohol.

    However, Rebecca McLeod says Oritain's scientists could look at the isotopic content of the water in alcohol products, analyse it and come up with a fingerprint for spirits such as whisky and vodka.

    This technique would only work pre-emptively.

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Crown Capital Eco Management- Food fraud tackled by forensic scientists

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