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Combating Olive Oil Fraud with Nuclear Innovations


Extra-virgin olive oil is popular all over the world and is a key ingredient in the Mediterranean diet. (Photo: FAO)

The IAEA is developing new and rapid methods to rapidly screen and authenticate the origin of foods like extra virgin olive oil.

Heat waves and droughts in Europe are affecting olive oil harvests and leading to a booming black market in fake virgin and extra virgin olive oil, according to a 2022 European Commission publication — which estimates olive oil is one of the most mislabelled food products in Europe.

Infra-red light, invisible to human eyes, is one of the key detection methods enabling rapid analysis. Using near near-infrared spectroscopy and other techniques to analyse how the olive oil interacted with infrared radiation, scientists at the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/IAEA laboratory were able to tell the difference between extra virgin olive oil from Slovenia and other countries with between 86 per cent and 93 per cent accuracy, after screening and processing the data obtained.  Scientists also used a different spectroscopy technique to accurately discriminate olive oil between different regions of Lebanon, in a separate study, as olive oil from different regions of Lebanon vary in quality and price.

Europe produces 60 per cent of the world's olive oil. (Photo: FAO).

The research carried out by the Joint FAO/IAEA laboratory was designed to verify the origin of Slovenian extra virgin olive oil from the Istria region, which has a protected designation of origin and is a high value product. A total of 64 authentic extra virgin olive oils were used in the study, collected over two years from Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Tunisia and Spain as part of an IAEA collaborative research initiative with these countries. 

Methods used in the olive oil study

  • Slovenia: Fourier Transform near-infrared spectroscopy (FT-NIR) and headspace gas chromatography ion mobility spectrometry (HS-GC-IMS).
  • Lebanon: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy with attenuated total reflectance (FTIR ATR).

The FT-NIR technique is a non-destructive chemical analysis technology which involves shining a beam containing many frequencies of light at a sample and measuring the absorption of near-infrared light. HS-GC-IMS involves analysing the gas layer above the sample, resulting in a 2D data matrix which can be used to compare samples to each other or a reference sample.

Scientists also were able to differentiate between 242 olive oils and identify their origin from four different regions of Lebanon with 89 per cent accuracy. Lebanese olive oil varies in quality and cost depending on its region of origin. In this case, a Fourier Transform infrared (IR) spectroscopy with attenuated total reflectance technique was used, which measures the internal reflection of infrared light from interaction with a sample and processes the data using mathematical algorithms. All these techniques represent a rapid and non-destructive way to test products such as olive oil for adulteration or mislabelling.

The research on Slovenian olive oil was carried out as part of  an IAEA coordinated research project to develop more food authentication tests, for instance to reveal where the olives in extra-virgin olive oil were grown.

“Infra-red spectroscopy and other techniques such as HS-GC-IMS can be used to analyse the samples in the laboratory and directly in the field, offers high sample throughput, low operational costs, requires little or no sample preparation, and no need for chemicals or specialized laboratory facilities,” said Christina Vlachou, Head of the Food Safety and Control Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Building on the recent launch of Atoms4Food, a joint initiative of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), this year will see a gathering of food specialists from academia, public bodies, industry and commercial organizations at the International Symposium on Food Safety and Control. The Symposium, which will be held at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna from 27 to 31 May 2024 in collaboration with the FAO, will provide a forum for sharing cutting-edge research and innovation, exchanging information and discussing international initiatives and needs.

The year 2024 will also mark the 60th anniversary of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, a unique international partnership between the two organizations that supports the safe and appropriate use of nuclear and related technologies in food and agriculture to contribute to global food security and sustainable agricultural development worldwide.

New research to tackle food fraud and other innovations in food safety and control will be among the issues considered at the International Symposium on Food Safety and Control. The IAEA will continue, with the expertise of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, to support food safety and quality and forge partnerships under Atoms4Food.

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