Food fraud tackled by forensic scientists

Asparagus

Wine, spirits, meat and even baby food can all be faked, with fraudsters hiding their true origins. Now forensic scientists are clamping down on food fraud, which costs millions in lost revenue and can put the health and safety of the public at risk.

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?

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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  in his vineyard 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.

EU food quality schemes:

  • PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) guarantees products such as Stilton cheese which must be produced, processed and prepared within their original geographical area using traditional methods
  • PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) protects products such as Cornish Pasties which are linked to a geographical area where at least one stage of production, processing or preparation must take place
  • TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed) protects products with traditional names not restricted to a geographical area

Source: EU agricultural product quality policy

"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.

She says while it hasn't analysed any top shelf spirits yet, it has catalogued wine for clients.

One of those is Antonio Pasquale, a winemaker based in north Otago, New Zealand.

He has become increasingly frustrated that wine produced in the country is allowed to be mixed with other vineyards' - laws there state if a label says the wine is from a particular grape variety, vintage or area, then at least 85% in the bottle must be from that variety, vintage or area.

Oritain scientists working with New Zealand bee keepers Oritain scientists have been working with bee keepers to map honey origins

"The structure of the free market pushes all food companies to standardise the product year in and year out. The lack of differences is destroying the individuality," he explains.

"I had enough of this. They (Oritain) came and sampled two blocks of 40 acres... mapped the chemical structure of my paddocks, and from then on they had freedom to come to my winery and collect samples.

"So I have solid proof that all my wine, as I say it is, comes from my paddock."

In southeast Asia provenance is becoming more important, as "there are million and millions of bottles of falsified wine sold in China," says Mr Pasquale.

"Wine was sold there produced in California but with French wine labels," he says.

China is no stranger to food scandals. But consumers are demanding higher standards of certification and proof of origin after infant formula was sold tainted with melamine in the country.

It has a bad record, in many food areas, including asparagus.

For example, in China, the US and Peru asparagus breeders can be tempted to 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.

Collecting asparagus seeds High and low grade asparagus seeds can be spotted in the field

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."

It is a low-cost option and technological advancement for rural farmers in developing country, meeting one of the key objectives this year of the United Nations' World Food Day on 16 October, which is to promote the transfer of technologies to the developing world.

Honey is another easily faked food.

"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)," explains Peter Cox, the general manager for New Zealand Honey Specialties.

The company is also asking scientists to profile their produce, which includes single flower honeys such as thyme honey, and honey produced in the beech forests of the south Island, or the lakes in Central Otago.

"Getting from beehive to the palette, we have a real story around authenticity. Certainly it's a rigorous scientific process," he says.

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