Why Your Organic Veggies Need Food Fingerprinting

The market for organic and eco-labelled foods has grown from pretty much zero to a staggering $60 billion industry within the past twenty years. It is no surprise that this extreme growth has encouraged many to flock to the market to earn their share. But like in any other industry, there are always some who try to cut corners, falsely advertise and misrepresent themselves to consumers.  Today, more and more scientists are specializing in food authenticity, helping customers weed out the imposters and ensure the words on each organic food label accurately describe the goods wrapped within them.

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Several methodologies have been perfected to detect food fraud and counterfeiting, including spectrometry, chromatography, DNA fingerprinting and isotope analysis. Lesley Chesson, a staff scientist and researcher at the University of Utah and research company IsoForensics, is an expert in such methodologies.  Her work reveals that even when a label is dishonest, a food’s chemical fingerprint always tells the truth.

Says Chesson, “There are definitely people who are starting to pay attention to where their food comes from, who want to make sure that it’s produced in a certain way or coming from a certain area.”

So, how does chemical fingerprinting work? An optical stable isotope analyzer will get the job done every time. This spectrometer measures stable isotopes in a gas. Researchers convert food samples into a gas (at 1,000 degrees Celsius) and then bounce light off the gas. The isotopes present in a sample are determined based on the  absorption and diffusion rates of the light through the gas. Isotopes are forms of elements like carbon, nitrogen or oxygen, all of which are found in meats, dairy, sugar – just about anything edible.

These detectable variations coincide with climate, growing conditions and manufacturing processes, giving researchers an indication of whether an animal was raised on grass or grain, or what type of soil a vegetable was grown in. Likewise, known variations in hydrogen and oxygen masses have been mapped across the United States and can tell you quite accurately where bottled water was pumped out of the ground.

Back in the day, this kind of forensic analyses required a million-dollar piece of instrumentation the size of a room. Now, companies like Picarro and Los Gatos produce smaller (and more wallet-friendly) shoe-box spectrometers.

Food fingerprinting can do more than just identify a sample’s origin. Food authenticity is undeniably linked to food safety, as products with high levels of pesticides, GMOs and toxins can be identified and removed from the supply chain. Furthermore, food authentication techniques are promoting the sustainability cause: “By providing traceability to food manufacturers and retailers, they are encouraging production of organic and eco-labelled products. By reducing incidents of food fraud, consumer trust in sustainable foods is strengthened.”

With science on their side, federal regulators hope to better combat food frauds, especially since their products don’t always lead to consumer sickness or some other obvious side effect. John Spinck, a food fraud expert at Michigan State University, says, “In many cases, there is not a clear violation of a law or regulation. This is a chess-match with a very intelligent, resilient, creative, and driven adversary.” However, the USDA’s Food Export Certificate Project and similar worldwide initiatives  are making counterfeiters second-guess themselves. Since February 2011, the USDA has reported 12 incidents of fake organic certificates in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Europe and shut them down.

Game on.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Samantha is a graduate of Boston University with concentrations in English, Biology and Environmental Policy. After working in higher education textbook publishing for some time, she turned to the freelance writing world and now reports on corporate social responsibility, green technology and policy, and conservation for TriplePundit.

4 responses

  1. Clever idea, but as Mark suggests this would likely be insanely expensive.  Part of the whole point of a farmer’s market is, to a certain extent, the benefit of the doubt, and knowing your sources.  Making people do these fingerprint things sounds ridiculously complicated and expensive… plus where do you draw the line?

    1. Sounds to be like it would not device for everyday consumers, but regulators like USDA and food safety specialists, taking random samples from consumer products.  Although it does sound expensive, at this higher level, it could be productive and affordable.

    2. This type of approach will be significantly cheaper for farmers and consumers than the current trend of barcode and RFID – which are easily cheated anyway.

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