Online Exclusives

Upping the Food Authentication Ante

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | July 23, 2012

There’s greater transparency and traceability across the supply chain thanks to the growing number of consumers hungry for organic and sustainably supplied foods.

Now more than ever, consumers of organic products are more interested in the benefits associated with organic foods and beverages than they are with their higher price tag. But alongside the perceived nutritional benefits of organic products, consumers also have high expectations that products they’re shelling out extra money for adhere to higher standards – but that’s not always the case. According to Organic Monitor, food authentication techniques are gaining popularity, partly because of growing concerns about fraud involving organic and sustainable foods. More importantly, this development has encouraged product sustainability by providing greater traceability across the supply chain.
According to Organic Monitor, the market for organic and eco-labeled foods has grown from almost nothing to over $60 billion in the span of 20 years. Like most markets where the potential for profit is high, the organic/eco-labeled/sustainable food industry’s high market growth rates have attracted its share of unscrupulous businesses looking to profit from ethical consumerism.
In fact, the number of fraudulent incidents involving food products has mushroomed in recent years. Earlier this year, an American broker was jailed for two years for passing off conventional corn as organic. Since February 2011, the USDA has reported 12 incidents of fake organic certificates; the origins of these fake certificates - Asia, Africa, Middle-East, Caribbean and Europe - demonstrate how international food fraud has become.
Organic products, however, have audit trails and traceable certificates and as such, incidents of fraud are relatively low compared to conventional food products. The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) of the UK estimated that fraud could be affecting up to 10% of all foods bought by consumers. At Organic Monitor’s recent Sustainable Foods Summit, the agency highlighted the analytical tools available to combat the various forms of food fraud: counterfeiting, mislabeling, species substitution, geographic origins, concealment, adulteration, etc. Case studies were presented, pertaining to how to authenticate food products - such as olive oil, wine, seafood, rice, honey and meats - in terms of their geographic origins and production methods.
Techniques capable of detecting pesticide residues and toxins in foods are much more in demand. “The growing prominence of food authenticity is making analytical techniques, such as mass spectrometry and chromatography, crossover from chemical labs to quality assurance departments at food companies,” Organic Monitor reported. “New technologies are emerging like DNA fingerprinting and isotope analysis that can authenticate food products by their chemical compositions. Such technologies can detect genetically modified organisms, adulteration and verify seafood and meat species. Isotope analysis can trace meat products to within five miles of where the livestock was raised, and state whether the animals were reared free-range or in cages. Food products with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) can also be verified.”
To maintain the integrity of sustainable foods, some certification agencies are using a combination of analytical techniques and new technologies. “Ecocert is monitoring its supply chains for organic and fair trade products by using fingerprinting methods, mass spectrometry and Earth Observation techniques,” the agency said. “The latter involves satellites taking ‘spectral images’ of agricultural fields to monitor agro-chemical usage. The Italian certification agency ICEA is using social networks to augment analytical methods, whilst others are forming strategic alliances to track organic certificates via online databases.”
At this year’s Sustainable Foods Summit, one of the driving take-away messages was that food authentication techniques are also promoting sustainability. “By providing traceability to food manufacturers and retailers, they are encouraging production of organic and eco-labeled products,” Organic Monitor said. “By reducing incidents of food fraud, consumer trust in sustainable foods is strengthened. They can also encourage shorter and tighter supply chains, removing unnecessary intermediaries. A major challenge however, is the separation and integration of supply chains in an increasingly global food industry.”

While delving into the topics of sustainable commodities and food authenticity, presenters and panel discussions at the Summit explored de-commoditizing ingredients and/or foods by sustainable development. Other topics on the summit agenda included sustainable supply chains, novel distribution models, food waste, and retailing best-practices (for greater detail about presentations at the Summit click here).

Two of the primary outcomes from the summit were that the food industry needs to improve efficiency of supply chains and addresssocial impacts. “With about a third of all food produced for human consumption lost or wasted, the food industry needs to adopt strategies for loss and waste reduction,” Organic Monitor said. “Inequality in supply chains is also depressing incomes of many agricultural producers in developing countries.”

The next edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit will take place in San FranciscoJanuary 22-23, 2013. For more details, please follow this link.  
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