Food authentication techniques are gaining popularity, partly because of growing concerns about fraud involving organic and sustainable foods, according to U.K.-based Organic Monitor, which said this development is encouraging sustainability by providing greater traceability across the supply chain.
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. In April, 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 U.K. estimates that fraud could be affecting up to 10% of all foods bought by consumers.
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, which 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 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, while others are forming strategic alliances to track organic certificates via online databases.