Counterfeit foods, especially goods with false claims of geographical origin, cause billions of dollars in economic damage every year. Botanists at the University of Basel have now developed a model that can be used to determine the origin of food efficiently and cost-effectively.
Strawberries from Switzerland or olive oil from Italy can be sold in stores at significantly higher prices than similar products, originating in other countries. This means that time and again, authorities and the food industry have to combat false declarations of the geographical origin of products. The annual economic damage is estimated at 30 to 40 billion dollars.
One method of detecting food fraud is to determine the delta O-18 value of a product sample, which characterizes the oxygen isotope ratio. Until now, this procedure has been very laborious and costly. When fraud is suspected, not only reference data from the alleged country of origin must be collected, but comparative data from other regions as well, to validate or disprove the origin of the product.
Cost-effective thanks to model calculation
Basel botanist Dr. Florian Cueni, in collaboration with Agroisolab Ltd, a company specializing in isotope analysis, has now developed a model that allows them to simulate the oxygen isotope ratio in plants from individual regions, eliminating the need for costly collection of reference data. The model is based on temperature, precipitation and humidity data and information about a plant's growing season. This information is obtained from publicly available databases.
Cueni tested and validated the model on a unique delta O-18 reference data set for strawberries collected across Europe over 11 years. The case study showed that the model can simulate the origin of strawberries with high precision.
"With minor adjustments to the parameters, our model can be used to determine all plant products," says Prof. Ansgar Kahmen, who led the research project. Conventional isotope analysis could thus be simplified and accelerated by precisely simulating the regions of origin of agricultural foods.
The Basel botanists' model is of interest to official food forensics or investigative authorities, for example, when it comes to the origin of confiscated drugs, as well as to private forensic institutes that inspect food or act as expert witnesses in court. On the other hand, NGOs such as WWF or Greenpeace are interested in it - especially with regard to determining the origin of illegally logged timber - and finally the food industry, for which the sale of potentially misdeclared foodstuffs is damaging to its reputation.
For more information:
Prof. Dr. Ansgar Kahmen
Tel. +41 61 207 35 71