Industry leaders take a bite out of food fraud

IBM is developing an e-tongue to fingerprint beverages and complex liquids

By Kate Ayers
Staff Writer
Better Farming

While food fraud has been a challenge in Canada for decades, food supply chain stakeholders and consumers have recently become more aware of the issue. The intentional adulteration of food can harm the reputation of the entire agri-food industry and affect producers’ bottom lines.

As a result, in June 2019, the federal government announced a $24.4-million investment through the recently launched Food Policy for Canada to help the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) combat food fraud.

Consumers holding honey
    Boogich/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Any food product can be subject to food fraud and misrepresentation. However, the most commonly reported food includes organic food products, honey, fish, dry spices and olive oil, the CFIA’s website says.

Testing such products and other liquids can be difficult. Often, scientists or officials must send samples to high-end laboratories. This process can be costly and time-consuming, an IBM Research article says.

To help food producers address the technological gap in the chemical sensing of liquids, IBM is developing its Hypertaste app.

Hypertaste app
    IBM photo

This technology uses combinatorial sensing, the IBM article says. Instead of individually identifying molecules in a sample, combinatorial sensing uses individual sensors to respond to different chemicals at the same time, which allows the tool to resemble human taste and smell.

“Hypertaste uses electrochemical sensors comprised of pairs of electrodes, each responding to the presence of a combination of molecules by means of a voltage signal, which is easy to measure,” Dr. Patrick Ruch, an IBM researcher in Zurich, Switzerland, says to Better Farming in an email statement.

“The combined voltage signals of all pairs of electrodes represent the liquid’s fingerprint.” The app’s mechanics uses these voltage signals to identify liquids in its dataset in less than a minute.

“We have built sensor arrays and combined them with off-the-shelf electronics that we configure to measure the voltages across the electrodes in an array and relay them to a mobile device, such as a smartphone,” Ruch says.

Hypertaste has potential applications in industrial supply chains, environmental monitoring and the food and beverage sectors.

“At present, once food and drinks are packaged, there is little ability to verify that the package actually contains what is on the label, apart from sending the product to a lab for testing,” Ruch says.

“So, suppliers acting in bad faith may insert lower-quality products into the supply chain with little risk of getting caught, or counterfeiters may even fake a real product by adding the few analytes which are most likely to be tested for in a lab.

“Fooling a combinatorial sensing system, such as Hypertaste, is much harder as there is no single substance on which the identification relies. It is more difficult for wrong-doers to access the sensor training parameters which provide the ‘key’ to interpreting the chemical fingerprints,” he adds.

In addition to the agri-food sector, stakeholders in the medical field could benefit from portable chemical sensing in diagnostic and preventative medicine, Ruch says. BF

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