Illuminating food fraud: optical technologies at the forefront of the fight against food and drink counterfeiting

The UK’s National Food Crime Unit recently estimated that piracy could account for more than one billion pounds of annual UK food and drink trade[1]. Amidst public concern over scandals involving horse meat “beef” burgers and antifreeze “vodka”, the food and drink industry is turning to high-tech solutions to protect their customers and stop counterfeiters from taking advantage of their brands’ reputations. Many of the technologies being introduced originate from the optics and photonics industries.

Perhaps the most shocking food fraud scandal of recent times came to light in 2008, when over 20 companies were found to have added melamine, a flame retardant plastic, to baby formula in order to fool tests designed to ensure adequate protein content.  Around 300,000 babies became ill in China, with tainted formula being linked to 54,000 hospitalisations and 6 deaths from kidney damage and malnutrition[2].

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is being used to identify melamine in baby formula down to 10 ppm.  SERS uses metal colloids or nanostructures to enhance the Raman effect, in which the frequency of laser light scattered off a sample is changed depending on its constituents.  SERS can boost the Raman signal intensity by up to 100 trillion times.

Another spectroscopic technique, near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, can probe the vibrational overtones of certain chemical bonds (e.g. CH, OH and NH).  Light at NIR wavelengths can penetrate deeply without being absorbed by water, so is suitable for testing high-moisture produce such as fruit, fish, meat and grains.  For example, NIR spectroscopy is being used to check for adulteration of ground beef with mutton, pork, organs and fillers, helping meat sellers to rebuild public trust in their products following the infamous horsemeat scandal of 2013.

A less well-publicised target of food fraudsters is the spice rack.  The product category Herbs and Spices is listed as number four in the ranking of most frequent product alerts in the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).  About 75% of these reports are due to improper composition or contaminations[3], both of which can affect the health of the consumer, as well as damage the brands of those involved in the supply chain.  For example, in 2005 over 600 finished food products were recalled in Europe and the US due to the presence of the carcinogenic red industrial floor dye Sudan 1, which had been added to chilli powder to disguise its aging[3].  EU project SPICED, which has recently come to the end of its three year term, focused on improving the safety and security of the herbs and spices supply chain in the EU.  Optical technologies were among those investigated for this purpose.

UV-Vis absorption spectroscopy is commonly used to grade saffron, which is a major target for food fraud due to its extremely high production costs and retail price.  However, this technique requires grinding of the precious saffron, filtering and extraction using solvents to produce a liquid solution.  Non-destructive reflectance spectroscopy techniques are starting to be used in place of such wasteful techniques to check the composition of spices.  For example, the graph below[4] shows the reflectance spectra of ginger cut with varying amounts of allspice, a commonly used filler.  The characteristic allspice dip at ~670nm can be used to identify adulterated ginger powder.


Henry Langston, Product Manager at Ocean Optics, whose modular spectrometers were used to obtain this data, has noticed a shift in the drivers for developments in optical testing techniques in recent years from biomedical applications to solutions for the food and drink sector.  This shift has given companies in the optical testing field a different perspective on their technologies, boosting their innovation activities and causing adjustments to their intellectual property (IP) strategies.

Langston notes that an advantage of working in such a high-tech field is that while innovations are sometimes copied, copycats in markets such as China struggle to copy optical equipment to the high engineering specifications innovative companies focus their efforts on.  The territorial nature of the patent system works for Ocean Optics in this regard since they can patent their developments to carve out a space for themselves in fast-moving, competitive markets such as the US, without spending money on protection where it isn’t needed.

For example, Ocean Optics’ US patent number 8,797,529 illustrates the principle that allows their STS microspectrometers to fit into a 40 x 42 x 24 mm casing.  As shown below , the geometry allows for a more compact design than a traditional Czerny-Turner spectrometer.


Czerny-Turner spectrometer



However, producing a rival product of a similar quality is a little more complicated than copying the drawings in the patent specification.  Although the patent protects the core technology, the know-how around the implementation of the technology in the product is kept secret to protect the product not only in the company’s biggest market (the US), but also in jurisdictions where competitor R&D budgets are lower.

If your company has developed an innovative way of detecting or protecting against counterfeiting, GJE may be able to help you to gain patent protection for your innovation.  During an Innovation Capture Session[5], we will help you to distil your invention and map out your overall IP strategy to complement your business plan.  We understand the importance of drafting patent specifications, where possible, with a view to your invention potentially having a broader application than you may have originally envisioned.  This can anticipate future usage of the technology in a range of industries, allowing you to license your technology to other companies, or to carve out a space which gives you an edge over your competitors.  We can also advise on IP license agreements if you are seeking to license in such technology.


If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please contact us via

[2] Jane Macartney, The Times, 22 September 2008: China baby milk scandal spreads as sick toll rises to 13,000

[4] © Ocean Optics, data produced using the pocket-sized Flame-S-VIS spectrometer

[5] Please see, or contact one of our attorneys for further details

This article was originally published in Electro Optics magazine.

Electro Optics magazine is a pan-European title for engineers involved in photonics business, technology and applications

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