Packaged foods are counterfeit foods

Counterfeit foods : Is it organic or can it go away?

Anyone who buys organic goose, Barolo wine and luxury cheese made from donkey milk for the party now generally assumes that they will get what they order. But the globalized food industry, in which the prawns for satay skewers are caught in Asian waters, peeled in Morocco, packed somewhere in Europe and carted to the supermarket by truck, offers counterfeiters, bullies and fraudsters paradisiacal opportunities. "The placing on the market of counterfeit and substandard food is huge business", the European police authority Europol presents. In 2017, it confiscated more than 3,600 tons of goods and around ten million liters of beverages - including rotten meat, fake tuna and powdered milk without milk ingredients.

Advantage in the race against fraudsters

Juice that is cheaply stretched; Cheese that isn't; Honey, which is infused with sugar syrup; Oregano that tastes like olive leaves: There is no food that is not adulterated. Organic food in particular has a special pull on counterfeiters: "With the three letters, bio‘, you suddenly have a sudden increase in value, "says Pablo Steinberg, President of the Max Rubner Institute in Karlsruhe.

There is a constant race between fraudsters and the authorities, who often only become active when a scandal becomes known. But now the food supervisors want to secure a technological lead - with the help of a huge database in which the “fingerprints” of real food are stored. If the data profile of every orange juice, olive oil and cream cheese that is allowed to be sold in the EU is known, counterfeiting can quickly be unmasked and removed from circulation by means of a comparison. "With this proof of authenticity, we would be ahead of the counterfeiting industry for the first time," says Reiner Wittkowski, food chemist and Vice President of the Berlin Institute for Risk Assessment. "We could find any type of counterfeit much faster and easier than today."

A "National Reference Center for Authentic Food"

The authorities therefore want to emulate private test laboratories such as Bruker, Eurofins and Agroisolab, which have already collected tens of thousands of data profiles for real food. This is a globally unique approach, an upgrade of the control authorities. A national reference center for authentic foods has been set up at the Max Rubner Institute since last year. The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture promised two million euros in the last legislative period. The first step is to take fingerprints of hundreds of spirits, oils and cheeses from Germany. Because these are the most important products in this country with high profit margins.

The researchers in the supervisory authorities of the federal states and also at the Max Rubner Institute can already show how much is possible. Milk specialist Joachim Molkentin has developed methods with which he can distinguish organic milk from conventional milk, including the products made from it. Organic milk contains more alpha-linolenic acid because the cows graze in the pasture instead of eating concentrated feed. Their share is usually over 0.5 percent in organic goods. In contrast, conventional dairy products contain more of a certain carbon atom, the isotope of type 13, which is due to the fact that these cows get a lot of maize. Both values ​​change over the season, but are characteristic of the economy and sometimes even of a farm.

Conventionally stretched organic milk

When Molkentin examined 56 different dairy products, he came across just under a dozen products that were conspicuous in terms of both the alpha-linolenic acid content and the amount of carbon isotope 13 and were therefore presumably falsified. Among other things, he observed an unauthorized stretching of organic goods with conventional milk. "Now it's our turn to develop detection methods," explains Molkentin. He already has test methods up his sleeve for other counterfeiting practices: Since the discussion about analog cheese, he has also been able to uncover cheap vegetable fat in cheese. To do this, he analyzes the fat composition. The “fingerprint” of a real gouda or yoghurt is made up of the amount of alpha-linolenic acid and the carbon isotope 13 as well as the proportions of various fats. "Depending on the food, we will use other methods that lead to a unique signature," says Steinberg.

The unmistakable genetic signatures play a major role in fish and seafood. When the Max Rubner Institute ordered sole in 24 restaurants in Bremen, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin, the genetic analysis revealed that it got a different fish in half of the cases. It was often the cheapest of all marine fish, the pangasius from farms in Vietnam. The biologists were twice unable to determine the species because it was unknown. This cheating can be dangerous: Because even in the sea there are fish species that are unpalatable or even poisonous for humans.

The industry, however, mainly relies on so-called NMR profiling. The nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrum of a liquid food sample is determined in just three minutes, i.e. which atomic nuclei are contained in it and in which proportions. It is like a barcode and is characteristic of many foods. That is why, for example, the Bruker company has tens of thousands of NMR profiles for juices, wine, oils and honeys ready. Every week, the institute's laboratory staff can uncover counterfeits on behalf of the food producers.

Negotiations with the data industry

"In the future we will also use an NMR device," says Steinberg, but admits: "We will no longer catch up with the private test laboratories." The lead is too huge. Obviously, therefore, negotiations are going on behind the scenes, says Steinberg. The industry would like to sell its data to the state, but would also receive data from the authorities. “Lawyers are currently thinking about what is possible.” What is certain is that the private sector will be adequately rewarded for this data deal.

The public funds are limited: For the reference center at the Max Rubner Institute, staff, material and investment funds in the mid six-digit range are planned for 2019, says institute spokeswoman Iris Lehmann. In the years thereafter, the funds are to be "increased further". So the money is flowing, but there is still a problem with the federal structures. So every state and higher authority still hoards its own fingerprints of various foods. "We have to clarify whether and how these can be made available to us," says Steinberg. "To keep reinventing the wheel is pointless."

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page