Nuclear Technology Powers Portable Weapons to Fight Food Fraud

Hand-held devices have shown potential as fast and effective weapons in the battle to wipe out food fraud.

Jun. 13, 2017
By Julie Al-Zoubi

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A new joint ven­ture by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has been launched to test nuclear-based tech­nol­ogy and low-cost portable tools in food screen­ing. The hand-held devices have shown poten­tial as fast and effec­tive weapons in the bat­tle to wipe out food fraud.

We are always wait­ing for the next big scan­dal to hap­pen. We need to have easy-to-use meth­ods in place.- Simon Kelly, Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture

The project was launched to develop effec­tive, portable, point-of-use tools that would pro­vide increased pro­tec­tion against adul­ter­ated and fake prod­ucts. The tools and tech­nol­ogy will be used for authen­tic­ity test­ing, set­ting oper­at­ing pro­ce­dures, pro­duc­ing guide­lines for analy­ses and to com­pile a data­base of authen­tic ref­er­ence sam­ples; a vital aid for reli­ably assess­ing a food’s ori­gin and its com­po­si­tion.

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.” Simon Kelly, the project leader and food safety spe­cial­ist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, said in a press release.

Advances in field-deploy­able ana­lyt­i­cal equip­ment have cre­ated oppor­tu­ni­ties for nuclear-based tech­nol­ogy sim­i­lar to that used by author­i­ties to detect explo­sives and ille­gal drugs to be uti­lized as new weapons against food fraud.One of the tech­nolo­gies marked for test­ing is Ion mobil­ity spec­trom­e­try.

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


Whilst pro­fes­sional research labs have been effec­tive in detect­ing var­i­ous types of food fraud and con­t­a­m­i­na­tion rel­a­tively quickly, the nature of these labs restricts porta­bil­ity. Many devel­op­ing coun­tries sim­ply do not have ade­quate capac­ity; the IAEA/ FAO ven­ture could pro­vide a solu­tion to this gap.

The project is aimed at sci­en­tif­i­cally test­ing food authen­tic­ity rather than rely­ing on eas­ily forged labels and paper­work. Jose Almirall, direc­tor of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University, said in the press release, Labels and paper­work are what coun­tries often depend on, and these can be forged.” Almirall added, We need to rely on sci­ence to pro­vide assur­ances.”

Food fraud has been esti­mated to cost the global food indus­try over $10 bil­lion annu­ally. In a recent joint oper­a­tion INTERPOL and Europol, seized €230 mil­lion of coun­ter­feit and sub­stan­dard food and bev­er­ages rang­ing from fake olive oil to adul­ter­ated alco­holic bev­er­ages.

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.”

Scientists from 13 coun­tries; Austria, Belgium, China, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Russian Federation, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom, Uganda and the United States have signed up to take part in the ini­tia­tive, which was launched in Vienna last month. Germany con­tributed by fund­ing two portable spec­trom­e­ter machines.

The first results are expected to be reported within two years.


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