An international research team is currently working on a new United Nations project to develop mobile instruments for the authentication of food products. For their project, the scientists are hoping to harness nuclear technologies that are already in use in the fight against drug trafficking.

Usually, specialised laboratories are needed for the investigation and authentication of food items and their contents: However, many countries lack the necessary resources for such facilities and the review process is often lengthy as well as costly. Therefore, researchers from 13 countries are now looking for an alternative in a new project for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency Organization (IAEA).

“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,” explains Simon Kelly, food safety specialist and project manager.

During the planning of such a mobile device, the researchers make use of current state-of-art technical achievements. “The development of high performance hand-held computing devices, such as smart phones, has enabled a new generation of instruments that can be used outside the traditional laboratory environment,” explains Iain Darby, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Science and Instrumentation Laboratory.” Of particular interest to the project is the so-called ion-mobility spectrometer, which uses nuclear technologies and is already being used by customs authorities for the chemical analysis and detection of possible explosives or illegal drugs.

If the researchers manage to develop such a device, on-the-spot inspections could be conducted to examine food products for manipulation, pollutants, mold and counterfeiting in particular. An important aspect for the researchers since labels and proofs of origin are repeatedly counterfeited in the food sector.

As milk powders and vegetable oils are particularly targeted by counterfeiters, the researchers are initially concentrating on the development of suitable solutions for the authentication of these products. Last year, Chinese authorities for example confiscated about 17,000 units of the fake baby food while in Italy, a total of 22 tons of counterfeit olive oil were seized during a single raid (we reported respectively).

The countries participating in the project are Austria, Belgium, China, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Russia, Sweden, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition, the project is supported by contributions from Germany. Initial results are expected within the next two years.

Sources: United Nations, Securing Industry