Traceability and authenticity

Sound food safety systems must include the ability to trace the origins of food in the global supply chain. We assist Member States in improving their laboratory and regulatory capacities in tracing food origin and verifying its authenticity, using stable isotope measurements and complementary fingerprinting and profiling techniques.

To be able to trace the origins of food products through robust analytical techniques is an essential element of a holistic approach to food safety. Knowing where food products come from does not only help if corrective actions need to be taken after contamination is detected. It also helps establish food authenticity; combat fraudulent practices; and deter food adulteration. The associated control measures reinforce the public’s trust in supply chains and thereby helps reduce barriers and concerns about international trade.

Together with the FAO, the IAEA facilities collaboration among Member States on applied research techniques and the development of methods to determine the provenance and authenticity of food. The techniques applied, including the use of the naturally occurring stable isotope “fingerprints” present in food, as well as metabolite fingerprinting (metabolomics), complement various new and emerging approaches for the detection of residues and contaminants.

From authenticity checks to finding out where food comes from

The earliest use of the stable isotope analysis technique to establish food authenticity took place in the early 1970s. The technique is a powerful tool because it provides unequivocal evidence of food adulteration or substitution when the adulterated food appears to be chemically and physically identical to the genuine product. Most of the early research was directed at detecting economically motivated food adulteration, such as by extending ingredients with cheap alternatives – water and sugar syrups in fruit juice, sugar and sugar syrups in honey, water and sugar in wine, cheaper oils in maize oil, vanillin added to natural vanilla extract, and so on.

Since the 2000s, stable isotope analysis has also been used to verify the geographical origins of food products. The composition of stable isotopes of food works as a “record” of the environmental conditions at the food’s point of origin, as well as the agricultural and feeding practices used during production.

Food origin analysis is a comparative technique that requires a database of reference values from authentic products, because there is considerable natural variation and overlap of isotope ‘signatures’ in foods from around the world. The FAO and IAEA helps establish and maintain global isotopic databases for food products, such as the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation. Since building such databases is a costly and time-consuming process, a newer approach is to exploit the link between the environment and the isotopic composition of food and use such variables as climatic data to ‘predict’ isotope signatures in food for a given location.