IAEA and FAO go mobile to tackle food fraud

The project will help countries quickly detect fraud and contamination with the help of portable tools, such as this X-ray fluorescence detector. Picture: IAEA

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are to look at mobile tools to combat food fraud and contamination.

The project will build on advances in field-deployable analytical equipment, such as adapting ion mobility spectrometry – a nuclear-based technology – to perform point-of-use screening to check for adulterants, contaminants and mould in food.

It will also develop methods to use hand-held devices to test authenticity including guidelines for analyses and a database of authentic reference samples.

Field-deployable analytical equipment  

The goal is to make low-cost devices and methods available for authorities to use in 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.

“We are always waiting for the next big scandal to happen, and hope that it will not have an impact on health. 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.”

Traditionally, laboratories can detect different types of fraud and contamination quickly but capacity is limited in many countries and is not portable.

“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,” said Iain Darby, head of the IAEA's Nuclear Science and Instrumentation Lab.

Milk powder and vegetable oil focus

The project will initially focus on methods to quickly analyse milk powder and vegetable oil, two commodities particularly vulnerable to adulteration.

Gutter oil – the waste cooking vegetable oil recovered and recycled back into the food chain – is a problem in many countries.

Syahidah Muhammad, head of the Stable Isotope Laboratory at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, said many food fraud cases remain ‘hearsay’ due to lack of proof.

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 said.

Work started last month and the first results are expected within two years.

Participating countries include Austria, Belgium, China, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden, UK, Uganda and the US.

The project is benefitting from two portable spectrometer machines purchased thanks to support from Germany.

“We need to rely on science to provide assurances,” said Jose Almirall, director of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University, and who is involved in the project.

“Labels and paperwork are what countries often depend on, and these can be forged.”

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