Where does your food come from? That’s a harder question to answer than you imagine. A global supply chain stretching across dozens of countries comes together at your grocery story to fill your shopping cart–some of it illegally.
Faced with a vast international trade in foods, companies are now looking for ways to find out where there suppliers are really getting their goods. Technology using molecular tagging, “a natural bar code that can’t be washed off or rubbed away,” says Ian Green, director of business development at Picarro which is pioneering the technology, is being picked up by companies from Coca Cola to Kraft.
The World Customs Institute estimates the counterfeit food industry is worth about $49 billion a year, while the FDA only inspects about 2% of imported food in the U.S. (about 15% of the total), and the number of domestic inspections is declining, reports Newsweek. “Products are moving around the world so fast now that there is just ample opportunity,” says John Spink, a food-fraud expert at Michigan State University in Newsweek. “And the demand for inexpensive food virtually guarantees that the problem will persist and grow.”
The process works by analyzing tiny samples of food and measuring the “flavors” of atoms in the sample, known as isotopes. Every location on the planet has a slightly different signature of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that points to the origins of food or plants. A sample dropped in a 2,000 degree oven breaks apart into its constituent molecules of water, sugars, and carbohydrates, yielding a chemical signature almost as distinctive as a fingerprint.
For food companies dealing with rampant fraud and smuggling in commodities such as cotton, cocoa, or palm oil, it’s a reputational risk–and a legal one–to be doing business with new suppliers. Concerns about child slavery or clear cutting of tropical forests have risen to the boardroom. Illicit products slipping into supplies of otherwise legitimate–even certified–products have sparked customer boycotts, the wrath of NGOs, and even raids by U.S. customs agents (Gibson Guitar).
Another concern is about the authenticity of ingredients themselves. As companies scour global markets for the cheapest products, suppliers are passing off counterfeit materials as the real thing. “I think the smaller companies are getting bilked on a daily basis,” says Green. To see how prevalent it is, Picarro tested products sold by companies from Whole Foods to lesser known brands. So far they’ve found Italian olive oil that is neither from Italy nor olives, as well as cosmetics derived from shark liver oil rather than plants (a compound known as squalane).
The technology–at about $1 sample, it’s cheap to perform individual tests–requires a $100,000 machine, so it’s still out of reach for most. Companies worried about the integrity of their global supplies, however, might find mapping their supply chain is a good investment.