DNA label to provide solution to food counterfeits?

02nd May 2014 - Fine Cut

Manufacturers are continually looking for new and more innovative ways to ensure their products cannot be ripped off by sophisticated fraudsters. However, the expertise of many modern criminals can make it increasingly difficult for companies to keep them at bay.

Now, ETH researchers may have hit upon a novel technique that could be used to protect the food industry by using invisible labels to mark produce.

More specifically, they have devised an invisible label - consisting of small magnetic DNA particles encased in silica - that can be added to olive oil to, well, invisibly label it.

The idea is that it will be impossible to replicate, thereby safeguarding original product's authenticity. It is enough to get the industry excited as, while the science may be expert indeed, only a small amount of the substance would be needed to tag the entire olive oil production of Italy.

According to the scientists: "Unbelievably small quantities of particles, down to a millionth of a gram per litre and a tiny volume of a thousandth of a litre, were enough to carry out the authenticity tests for the oil products." When it comes to this kind of labelling, a little really will go a long way!

So how does this amazing new invisible label work?

The researchers leveraged nanotechnology and DNA in order to construct the label. Genetic material - the DNA - is at the core of the label and contains the necessary information, rather like a barcode. With so many millions of coding combinations to choose from within DNA, there are endless options for storing information.

However, this genetic information need to be encased in silica in order to protect it from being damaged or affected by external factors such as temperature and chemicals. Then, the tag is magnetised by having iron oxide nanoparticles attached so that a magnet can be used to extract the labels from the oil.

If it is suspected that an item is a fake, the particle added at the place of origin can be extracted and analysed in order to identify the producer - if indeed the particles are there at all. Furthermore, the invisible label will also make it possible for investigators to identify adulteration, meaning substandard products can be singled out too.

As Robert Grass, lecturer in the department of chemistry and applied biosciences at ETH Zurich, says: "The method is equivalent to a label that cannot be removed."

There is no question that such a development would be greatly welcomed. ETH reports how a joint effort in December 2013 and January 2014 saw Interpol and Europol seize more than 1,200 tonnes of counterfeit or substandard food. The problem is far from limited to edibles, as the organisations also confiscated almost 430,000 litres of 'fake' drinks. 

It is perhaps not surprising the scientists should have chosen to investigate the technology with oil, as across this time period, more than 131,000 litres of counterfeit oil and vinegar were seized.

Now, it will be interesting to see how - if at all - the technology and science behind this invisible label can be leveraged for other industries and products.

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