The economic impact of counterfeiting products amounts to millions in lost sales and profits to retailers, producers and suppliers.
Counterfeiting is at odds with the reasonable assumption that a foodstuff is what it claims to be on its labelling. In contrast to the financial losses facing businesses on the production and supply side, the consequences to consumers can range from simple deception as to the product’s content, not benefitting from the anticipated efficacy of it to the more severe outcomes of illness and death.
Despite best efforts of national food safety authorities such as the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, certain types of food and beverage products continue to fall prey to counterfeiting.
Notable examples include olive oil, goat’s milk, wines, basmati rice, honey, vanilla and saffron.
Products at risk
Olive oil is open to being mixed with cheaper oils, or using a far inferior oil mixed with green dye to give it the appearance of olive oil - and then sold at a premium.
A variety of aromatic Basmati rice types are also regarded by consumers as premium food products and, as such, are a prime target for counterfeiters who adulterate the product with the addition of cheaper types of long grain rice.
Goat’s milk is also being diluted with cow’s milk and the difference is very difficult to detect by taste alone. Honey can be counterfeited in various different ways, mixed with sugar, corn syrup and other sweeteners.
Expensive spices like saffron and vanilla are frequently faked by being synthetically produced or by being substituted with cheaper spices that taste and look the same thanks to food flavouring and dyes. These two spices are largely grown in countries where a cash crop is sorely needed and one of the consequences of counterfeiting is to rob such communities of a percentage of their livelihood.
Manuka honey is broadly hailed as a wonder product that demonstrates antiviral and antibacterial qualities. When this rare and highly priced product is misrepresented, consumers are not only duped financially, but are also cheated of the health benefits associated with it.
Last year customs and excise laboratories in France ran half a million analytical tests on wines and beers entering the country, bringing the role of scientific analysis into sharp focus.
Counterfeit goods are invariably undetectable by sight and smell alone and samples of suspect goods must be analysed using sophisticated chemical analysis techniques.
Food standards authorities typically rely on expert food laboratories which use sophisticated instrumentation and techniques to identify components of food stuffs.
One of the most commonly used techniques involves gas chromatography where the food sample to be tested is first turned into a gas, and then carried through a column by a nonreactive 'carrier' gas – or one that will not impact the integrity of the food sample - such as helium or another other inert gas such as nitrogen.
As the sample is carried through the column it is separated into its individual components. The separate components can not only be identified but how much of each can be determined.
Despite its name, liquid chromatography also employs gas to analyse food stuffs. The food sample is dissolved into a solvent and then carried by a moving gas stream (helium or nitrogen) to breakdown the sample into individual constituents. High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) can help identify compounds as low as parts per trillion.
When more sophisticated analysis is required, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) can be used. It is the most advanced technique available for food counterfeiting investigations and involves generating a very high magnetic field around the nuclei in a particular molecule to allow the nuclei to absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation.
The pattern in which this occurs is detected to identify which particular molecules are present. The intense magnetic field is generated by a super-conducting magnet that can only operate in extremely cold temperatures. This is achieved by immersing the electro-magnet in liquid helium.
Food analysis is a growing market and the demand for the specialty gases that facilitate the detection of ever lower levels of chemicals in food is on the increase.
These include nitrogen and helium for gas chromatography, nitrogen for liquid chromatography liquid helium for NMR and helium gas for the high performance – and even ultra-high performance chromatography techniques.
Though food counterfeiting remains prevalent, there are ways of combating it to ensure the purity of products, which can have both economic and health benefits to the population, and specialty gases are imperative to the process.
- Stephen Harrison, global head of specialty gases and specialty equipment at Linde Gases, Germany, is a British Chartered Engineer (MIChemE) with a career in industrial gases spanning 24 years, over 10 of which have been focused in the area of specialty gases. He has worked in an international capacity for Linde Gases and previously BOC and now leads Linde’s global Specialty Gases & Specialty Equipment business from Munich, Germany.