Foiling Food Fraud

A new report forecasts growth in the anti-counterfeit food and beverage packaging market. Technologies of choice include holograms, RFID, and the emerging area of invisible, edible barcodes.

Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - Testing DNATrax
Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - Testing DNATrax

The recent ABC News 20/20 investigation into the sale of counterfeit drugs in the U.S., has spread awareness among the masses that the pills in our medicine cabinet may not be real. In fact, they may be dangerous. Fake products also filter into cosmetics, toothpaste, even vehicle airbags.

Now that we know that, it may also be time to shine a spotlight on the items in your kitchen. Is the honey in your pantry, the salmon in the freezer, or the fruit juice in the refrigerator really authentic? Food fraud is on the rise, which means we should be questioning our cuisine.

More importantly, it means that food and beverage producers need to be more vigilant when it comes to protecting the authenticity of their products-- for the safety of their customers as well as their own economic viability. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that fraud may cost the global food industry between $10 billion and $15 billion per year, affecting approximately 10 percent of all commercially sold food products. And a fraud incident that results in a public health scare could also tarnish the manufacturer’s brand.

Food fraud is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the “intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain.” Bottom line is, what’s on the packaging label is not what’s in the product.

In an effort to get a grip on the severity of the situation there are now resources, like the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) food fraud database, a searchable online repository for food ingredient fraud reports and emerging risks and trends related to counterfeiting. But a tool like this is more of a knowledge repository. Manufacturers, however, need to take action to protect against future problems. More and more, these companies are turning to technology to fight food fraud. Here’s the proof:

A new report by Allied Market Research, titled, "Global Anti-counterfeit Food & Beverage Packaging Market-Industry Analysis, Size, Growth, Trends, Opportunities, and Forecast,2014-2020,” forecasts the market to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.1 percent from 2015-to-2020. The global anti-counterfeit packaging (for food and beverages) market generated a revenue of $26.4 billion in 2014 and is forecast to reach $62.5 billion by 2020, the report says.

The research identifies the anti-counterfeit technology market as being authentication technologies, such as ink and dyes, holograms, watermarks, taggants; and track and trace technologies in the form of barcodes and RFID. According to Allied Market Research, the top 10 companies providing anti-counterfeiting technology for the food and beverage market include: Zebra Technologies, Inksure Technologies, Alien Technology Corp., Alpvision, Avery Dennison, Sicpa, Authentix Inc, Flint Group, Applied DNA Science, and TruTag Technologies.

What really caught my attention were companies like Applied DNA Science and TruTag, as well as another company not on this list, DNATrek. These companies are in the edible barcode business.

DNATrek’s DNATrax, for example, is a sugar-based invisible barcode that uses technology invented at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It is an FDA-approved produce coating that is sprayed directly on to fresh produce and other food products, or can be mixed with liquids or dry goods.

With a simple swab of what the company says is “an inexpensive off-the-shelf instrument,” DNATrax can identify the code and reveal the origin of the product-- right down to which tree a particular pear came from—in a matter of minutes. This is great for tracking contaminated food back to its source, but can also identify fraudulent foods, including how many ingredients have been added, how much, and where they came from.

It will be really interesting to see how technology like DNATrax will play into supply chain serialization. Given the Food Safety Modernization Act as well as new government initiatives-- such as the Obama administration’s March 2015 announcement that it will implement a system to track the origins of every wild fish shipped into the U.S.-- my guess is that these new invisible, edible barcodes are going to be the next big thing in foiling food fraud.

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