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Bio-tags flag food tampering

Counterfeit or mislabelled foodstuffs are problems that plague the food industry, and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan believes he’s found a way to eliminate it.


Nicholas Low, in the department of food and bioproduct sciences, has developed a series of microscopic, carbohydrate-based markers that can be added to food products. These compounds, which are safe to ingest, act like invisible tags or barcodes that can be scanned to see if the food has been tampered with or mislabelled.

For example, if someone has adulterated a food product such as orange juice by replacing half of the original product with something else, then “you can expect the concentration [of the chemical-compound tag] to be cut down by half,” explains Dr. Low. Or, if a merchant falsely labels a cheaper type of farmed fish as being a more expensive wild variety, the embedded marker would tell the true tale. The tag “assures you of the quality of the products that you’re buying,” says Dr. Low.

The professor and his team have developed 10 tags that can be added to food in any combination. “It’s like having 10 numbers and we can add those tags in any multiple that we want,” he says. “So think of how many telephone numbers you can make with the numbers zero to nine.”

Dr. Low estimates that five to 10 percent of Canadian food products are mislabelled or adulterated before they’re sold. The next step is to test the tags within an industrial setting. “We plan to do a pilot study in a plant using apple juice,” he says. “We’re hoping that once we get the results, some of the industrial partners that we deal with may pick up the technology.”

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