The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on May 22 that it is launching a five-year research project with experts from 16 countries to refine methods to apply nuclear-derived techniques to test for accuracy in food labels.
The outcome of the project, carried out in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), will assist countries in combating fraud in high value food products, such as premium honey, coffee, and specialty rice varieties.
“Numerous foods are sold at premium prices because of specific production methods, or geographical origins,” says project coordinator and IAEA food safety specialist Simon Kelly. “In order to protect consumers from fraud, and potential unintended food safety issues, we need standardized methods to confirm that the product has the characteristics that are claimed on the label.”
The project will help countries apply stable isotope techniques to protect and promote foods with added-value, such as organic food or products with specific geographical origins like Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. The method works by looking at the ratio of stable isotopes in elements—such as hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon—and the concentration of elements in a sample of the product. These can provide a unique fingerprint that links a crop to the place where it is cultivated.
“DNA will tell your parentage but not where you were brought up, whereas the isotopes the food product has absorbed from the environment reflect where they grow,” says Russell Frew, professor of chemistry at the University of Otago in New Zealand and one of the experts taking part in the project.
Frew worked previously at the Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Program in Seibersdorf, Austria, where he helped to develop the stable isotope method to test for authenticity in manuka honey. “It is reported that there is about six times as much manuka consumed as is produced,” he says. The honey, produced from the nectar of the New Zealand manuka tree flower, boasts natural antimicrobial properties and can fetch up to 1,000 New Zealand dollars, or almost Euro 600, per kilogram.
Nives Ogrinc, professor of ecotechnology at the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, is looking to apply the method to safeguard the quality and geographic denomination of Slovenian truffles. “White truffles can sell for up to 2,300 Euro per kilogram—they are a big market, so there is a lot of fraud. We are also working on fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, cherries, and garlic.”
Fraud is a growing problem in the food industry, affecting countries globally and hurting exports. The research project will help developing countries increase compliance with regulatory requirements, thus facilitating trade.
Incorrect labeling is also affecting Thai Hom Mali rice, a premium fragrant long-grain variety that accounts for 13-18 percent of Thai rice exports. The rice is produced in the north and northeastern parts of the country, which offer the ideal combination of soil and climate conditions. “We have no laboratory to do this type of analysis, so I want to learn how to apply this method,” says Wannee Srinuttrakul, a scientist at the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology.
Prized for its aroma and low-acidity, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is among the world’s most expensive, making it prone to counterfeiting. “It is really important for us to protect our coffee,” says Leslie Ann Hoo Fung, a researcher at the International Centre for Environment and Nuclear Sciences in Kingston, Jamaica. “We want to apply nuclear techniques to differentiate Blue Mountain from High Mountain coffee, for example, as they command different price points.” Jamaica also wants to look at the applicability of the technique to other premium national commodities, such as cocoa and rum.
The research project started with a kick-off meeting in May and will run for five years. Participating countries include China, Costa Rica, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, New Zealand, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand, and Uruguay.
The IAEA, jointly with the FAO, helps its member states use nuclear and related techniques for science-based solutions to improve food safety and security and sustainable agricultural practices. The FAO, together with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, published a report in 2018 highlighting the benefits of robust geographical indication systems for local food products to rural communities.