The market for organic and eco-labeled foods has grown from almost nothing to over $60 billion within 20 years. High market growth rates and the premium associated with sustainable foods have attracted unscrupulous businesses looking to profit from ethical consumerism. Indeed, the number of fraudulent incidents involving food products has mushroomed in recent years. Last month, 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.
Since organic products have audit trails and traceable certificates, incidents of fraud are relatively low compared to conventional food products. The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) of the UK estimates that fraud could be affecting up to 10% of all foods bought by consumers. At the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit, the agency will highlight the analytical tools available to combat the various forms of food fraud: counterfeiting, mislabeling, species substitution, geographic origins, concealment, adulteration, etc. Case studies will be given on how to authenticate food products - such as olive oil, wine, seafood, rice, honey and meats - in terms of their geographic origins and production methods.
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. Such techniques can detect pesticide residues and toxins in foods. 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 5 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 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.
As will be shown at the Sustainable Foods Summit, 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. 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.
Food authenticity is a focal theme of the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit, taking place in Amsterdam on 7-8th June. The summit will cover the range of analytical techniques and technologies to authenticate food products. FERA UK, Ecocert, ICEA, as well as leading sustainable food companies will be participating.