International atomic agency steps up food fraud fight

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has launched a five-year research project that aims to refine methods to apply nuclear technologies to combat food fraud.

Nuclear-derived techniques – particularly stable isotope analysis – could be used to test for accuracy in food labels, and help detect fraud in high-value food products such as “premium honey, coffee and speciality rice varieties,” says the IAEA, which is working on the project in tandem with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The method works by looking at the ratio of stable isotopes in elements – such as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon – and the concentration of elements in a sample of the product. These can provide a unique fingerprint that links a crop to the place where it is cultivated.

The new project extends an ongoing programme at the IAEA and FAO which focused on the development of methods for using hand-held devices to test food authenticity as well as guidelines for analyses and the establishment of a comprehensive database of authentic reference samples.

“Numerous foods are sold at premium prices because of specific production methods, or geographical origins,” said project coordinator and IAEA food safety specialist Simon Kelly.

“In order to protect consumers from fraud, and potential unintended food safety issues, we need standardised methods to confirm that the product has the characteristics that are claimed on the label.”

The IAEA is teaming up with experts from 16 countries on the project, which aims to use nuclear and related techniques to trace food origin, test its authenticity, and test for contaminants.

One recent projects focused on Basmati rice, a premium product that attracts higher prices and is a known target for adulteration with lower quality material grown outside the geographically correct area around the Himalayas.

Another project has been focusing on olive oil, which can be adulterated with rapeseed or event hazelnut oil, which can have food safety implications.

“DNA will tell your parentage but not where you were brought up, whereas the isotopes the food product has absorbed from the environment reflect where they grow,” said Russell Frew, professor of chemistry at the University of Otago in New Zealand and one of the experts taking part in the project.

Frew worked previously at the Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme in Seibersdorf, Austria, where he helped to develop the stable isotope method to test for authenticity in manuka honey.

“It is reported that there is about six times as much manuka consumed as is produced,” he said. The honey, produced from the nectar of the New Zealand manuka tree flower, boasts natural anti-microbial properties and can fetch up to NZ$1,000, or almost €600, per kilogramme.

The method is also being applied to Slovenian truffles, which can sell for up to €2,300 per kilogramme, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, and Thai Hom Mali rice as well as everyday fruits and vegetables including strawberries, cherries, and garlic.

Countries participating in the project include China, Costa Rica, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, New Zealand, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand and Uruguay.

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