Food fraud costs billions. Now there’s a new way to fight it!

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“ Honey laundering ” is when the true origin of products is masked for financial gain. Mexican-grown greenhouse tomatoes labelled and sold as Canadian, earning the offending parties a $1.5 million fine and three-year period of probation.

Such false claims of geographical origin is considered food fraud. Food fraud impinges on the rights of the consumer, who is stripped of the ability to make informed decisions about the food they buy; and costs the global food industry an estimated $10 to $15 billion per year.

The Consumer Brands Association stated that food fraud affects roughly 10 per cent of all commercially sold foods. The most common products are dry spices, fish, fruit juices, honey, olive oil and organic items, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Misrepresented country-of-origin information is difficult to identify. It often requires sophisticated investigative methods to uncover.

National post reported that “botanists at the University of Basel have developed a new cost-effective way to detect falsified plant products by building on a well-used technique: stable isotope analysis. Stable isotope analysis has a wide range of applications. The isotopic signature — a ratio of chemical elements imprinted on materials, ranging from strawberry flesh to human bones — reflects what the organism has eaten and the particularities of food webs. The signature can tell investigators where the life form has been and how it has responded to environmental changes”.

Food fraud affects roughly 10 per cent of all commercially sold foods

When food forensics officials have a concern that the labelled products were grown elsewhere, where they can be produced at a much lower cost — the ensuing investigation would require the collection of physical samples from across both geographical locations, explains Prof. Ansgar Kahmen , who led the research project, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports .

In order to validate the origin of the product, a private forensic laboratory would then analyze the isotope composition of these reference samples and compare them to the signature of the suspect sample in order to determine which region was a match.

“The problem with this method is that you need to collect these reference samples. So you always need to go to the region under suspicion, or you need to send a certified collector there to collect these samples, and then they need to be shipped to the lab and you need to analyze (them),” says Kahmen.

This is a time consuming process and also costly. By adapting the stable isotope method to use simulations instead, the botanists have bypassed the need to travel the world collecting reference samples. “(Our model) makes the process of origin identification faster and cheaper,” he adds.

Though food fraud isn’t their primary area of interest, there was potential to adapt plant physiological isotope models and apply their understanding of how these signals are being generated.

Kahmen said that “in this case, we turned it around a little bit, and we looked at the potential of plants to record environmental signals across space.”

This article was originally sourced by National Post.