Food fraudsters have found countless ways to trick shoppers – from cheap horsemeat sold as beef to conventional apples labeled as organic. But new rapid testing and tracing technologies may help turn the tables on food crime.
The stakes are high for producers of expensive foods, which are particularly vulnerable to fraud. These include extra virgin olive oil, saffron and organic produce.
It can take days or even weeks for laboratories to check for the presence of pesticides or antibiotics on samples collected in fields, slaughterhouses and shops. By the time results come in, the goods may have already been sold and eaten.
Michel Nielen, professor of food safety at Wageningen University & Research, in the Netherlands wanted to create a fundamental change in the world of food monitoring, so he and his team coordinated the FoodSmartphone project which is developing ways to detect food quality and safety using smartphones.
The project is finding ways to bring the laboratory to the field with technology that can be used by everyone, from food inspectors to truck drivers, retailers and shoppers.
The team is developing a device that can be attached to a smartphone to test food for the presence of allergens and pesticides. The device will be able to detect if a product is organic or not and whether it is safe.
Other hand-held testing technologies are also being developed. The more people test food, the more data will become available. That means governments and industry will be able to react faster to a breaking issue and know precisely which parts of the food chain to close down.
But they will also have to respond to issues raised on social media and in the general press by non-experts who have tested food and reached the wrong conclusions. One way to prevent this is for designated agencies to judge the quality of smartphone measurements, as more food testing technologies come on the market.
Other researchers are also testing big data algorithms to see how well they can predict food fraud. They monitor potential triggers for food scams, which include harvest size, climate, political situations, food markets and the value of products.
Analyzing the triggers helps them predict which parts of the global food chain are most likely to be targeted by fraudsters.
Breweries, for example, buy barley and malt from different parts of the world depending on the weather, to avoid the risk of mold contaminating their grain. That means fraudsters targeting breweries will try to mislead buyers over the country of origin.
Counterfeit versions of extra virgin olive oil comprise one of the biggest sources of agricultural fraud in the EU, according to the Oleum project which is developing ways to tackle the issue.
Sub-standard olive oils can be mislabeled as extra virgin, blended with other vegetable oils, or the country of origin faked in a market where Italian oils come at a premium. Europe produces 70 percent of the world’s olive oils, with strong regulations governing its production and supply.
But it’s not enough. Laboratory tests can take hours, but Oleum is trying to develop methods that can screen an oil in minutes.
Traceability is key, and blockchain technology will be important to track the oil from the olive grove to its point of sale. It will also include information about its quality from laboratory tests.
Europe is starting to work on full traceability models which researchers hope can be rolled out internationally within the next ten years. Many other countries, including the US, have their own controls and regulations for olive oil.
It will be critical in the following years to work toward harmonization and establish traceability technology to fight food fraud internationally.