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New IAEA Project Looks at Portable Detection Equipment to Help Prevent Food Fraud

Vienna, Austria

A new IAEA project looks to enable countries to quickly detect fraud and contamination in milk and vegetable oils with the help of low-cost, portable tools, such as this X-ray fluorescence detector. (Photo: IAEA)

The IAEA has launched a project to enable countries to quickly detect food fraud and contamination with the help of low-cost, portable tools.

The coordinated research project, run in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), brings together scientists from 13 countries to explore opportunities created by advances in field-deployable analytical equipment.  

Fraud is estimated to cost the global food industry between US $10 billion and US $15 billion every year, affecting around 10 per cent of all commercially-sold food products, according to the United States-based Grocery Manufacturers Association.

“The development of high performance hand-held computing devices, such as smart phones, has enabled a new generation of instruments that can be used outside the traditional laboratory environment,” said Iain Darby, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Science and Instrumentation Laboratory.  

Ion mobility spectrometry, a nuclear-based technology used by border police in the detection of illicit drugs and explosives, is one of several methods that could be adapted to perform point-of-use screening tests to check for adulterants, contaminants and mould in food.

The project will develop methods for using such hand-held devices to test food authenticity, including guidelines for analyses and a comprehensive database of authentic reference samples – a critical requirement for reliable assessments of food provenance and composition.

Participating countries are Austria, Belgium, China, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Russian Federation, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom, Uganda and the United States. The project kicked off with a meeting in Vienna in May, and first results are expected within the next two years.

“The goal is to make available low-cost devices and methods for food authorities to use directly in the streets and markets, particularly in developing countries,” said Simon Kelly, a Food Safety Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, who leads the project.

While professional research laboratories have the ability to detect different types of fraud and contamination in food relatively quickly, such capacity is often limited in many countries.

“Labels and paperwork are what countries often depend on, and these can be forged,” said project participant Jose Almirall, Director of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University. “We need to rely on science to provide assurances.”

“Food fraud cases often remain hearsay and recurring due to lack of proof and convictions,” said Syahidah Muhammad, Head of the Stable Isotope Laboratory at the Universiti Sains Malaysia. Portable tools and standard operating procedures will allow authorities to respond faster at critical checkpoints, and protect the food supply chain from being inundated with tainted products, she added.

The project will initially focus on devising methods to quickly analyse milk powder and vegetable oil, two commodities that are particularly vulnerable to adulteration. For example, “gutter oil” – waste cooking vegetable oil that is recovered and recycled back into the food chain – has raised alarm in several countries.

Food adulteration can pose a significant danger to public health, and the loss of public confidence in food products can lead to international trade bans and severe economic damage.

“We are always waiting for the next big scandal to happen, and hope that it will not have an impact on health,” said Kelly. “Authorities often find themselves under public pressure, while not being adequately equipped with screening technology that can stand up to the challenge of uncovering food fraud. We need to have easy-to-use methods in place.”

The project is benefitting from two portable spectrometer machines purchased thanks to a contribution from Germany to help modernize the Agency’s nuclear sciences and applications laboratories.

The IAEA, jointly with FAO, helps its Member States use nuclear and related techniques for science-based solutions to improve global food security and sustainable agricultural development.

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