Food Sleuths – food traceability detection

  • Food fraud, economic adulteration and food counterfeiting are estimated to account for worldwide losses of $49 billion. Quite often this does not manifest itself as sickness or cause the consumer any harm, so is not a high priority for regulators. Commodities that are marketed as premium products such as, for example,“grass-fed beef”or organic free-range eggs provide the incentive to cheat and mislabel.
  • The new solution is an optical stable isotope analyser. These measure the stable isotopes in a gas, therefore requiring samples to first be converted to a gas via combustion, after this, light is bounced off the gas. Depending on the rate at which light is absorbed and diffused in the gas, researchers can determine the isotopes present.
  • Subtle, detectable variations in these isotopes coincide with climate, growing conditions and manufacturing processes, ratios, of say carbon and nitrogen, can give an indication of whether an animal was fed on grass or grain. Similarly, by mapping hydrogen and oxygen concentrations, the process can determine where bottled water was pumped from.
  • In contrast to previous methods, these spectrometers are now small enough to fit in a rucksack, making the process far more accessible.

This technology could have potentially significant implications for UK food tracing, reducing food fraud and associated economic losses that otherwise go undetected, and protecting producers of “premium” commodities. It is also important to note that although the test equipment is getting more portable, the overall system remains complex and this may not prove a universally applicable technology.

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About Julia Chatterton

Systems modeller with a particular expertise in food, farming and agricultural systems. Working with life cycle assessment methods for over 4 years to assess and analyse the environmental burdens associated with food and other production systems.
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