Tech UPTechnologySmartphones and blockchain technology to fight food fraud

Smartphones and blockchain technology to fight food fraud

Food fraudsters have found countless ways to mislead shoppers , from cheap horsemeat sold as beef to conventional apples labeled organic. But new tracking and rapid testing technologies can help turn the tables on food crime.

The stakes are high for expensive food producers, who are especially vulnerable to fraud. These include extra virgin olive oil, saffron, and organic products .

“People don’t like to be fooled,” said Michel Nielen, a professor of analytical chemistry at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. “Once they start running into cases of fraudulent organic products, for example, they will be much more reluctant, in general, to pay additional money for these types of products.”

Laboratories can take days or even weeks to check samples collected from fields, slaughterhouses, and shops for pesticides or antibiotics. By the time the results come in, the merchandise may have already been sold and eaten.

“We want to bring about a fundamental change in the world of food surveillance,” says Professor Nielen, who coordinates the FoodSmartphone project, which is developing ways to detect food quality and safety using smartphones.

The project is finding ways to bring the lab to the field with technology that can be used by everyone from food inspectors to truck drivers, retailers and buyers.

“Even consumers should be empowered to do food safety and quality controls,” said Prof. Nielen.


The team is developing a device that can be connected to a smartphone to analyze food and detect the presence of allergens and pesticides . The device will be able to detect if a product is organic or not, and if it is safe . Other portable test technologies are also being developed. With so many people trying food, much more data will become available, says Professor Nielen.

This means that governments and industry will be able to react more quickly to a breakdown problem and know more precisely which parts of the food chain need to be closed. But they will also have to answer many questions raised in the media and in the general press by non-experts who have tasted food and come to wrong conclusions.

“There is a high risk that people will develop mistrust in testing and official monitoring of food,” said Professor Nielen. One way to prevent this is for designated agencies to judge the quality of smartphone measurements, as that there are more food testing technologies on the market, he adds.


Other researchers are also testing big data algorithms to see how well they can predict food fraud.

They monitor potential triggers for food scams, including crop sizes, weather, political situations, food markets, and product values. Trigger analysis helps them predict which parts of the global food chain are most likely to be targeted by scammers.

Breweries, for example, buy barley and malt from different parts of the world depending on the climate, to avoid the risk of mold contaminating their grain. That means that scammers targeting breweries will try to mislead buyers about the country of origin.

“Excellent knowledge of global food supply chains is necessary to predict which parts of the food chain are most vulnerable in a given year,” said Prof. Nielen.

Food safety and anti-fraud agencies should be able to start using this algorithmic technology within the next three years, he says.

Olive oil

The fruity and spicy flavors and the smell of cut grass, tomato and artichoke are some of the sensations that characterize top quality olive oil: extra virgin.

A tickle in the back of your throat is a sign that it is full of health-promoting antioxidants. However, counterfeit versions constitute one of the biggest sources of agricultural fraud in the EU , according to the Oleum project, which is developing ways to tackle the problem.

Inferior quality olive oils can be mislabeled as extra virgin, mixed with other vegetable oils , or the country of origin can be falsified in a market where Italian oils have a high price.

Extra virgin olive oil from Italy costs about 340 euros per 100 kg, compared to 197 euros for Spain , according to the International Olive Council.

Europe produces 70% of the world’s olive oils.

Maintaining a good reputation is vital for consumer confidence, says Tullia Gallina Toschi, coordinator of the Oleum project and professor of food science and technology at the University of Bologna. “We need internationally agreed methods and standards to screen olive oil for fraud,” he said. If Italy and China use different ways of analyzing the same olive oil, for example, and get different results, consumers will lose confidence in the product, says Professor Gallina Toschi.

Europe has strong regulations governing the production and supply of olive oil . “But it’s not enough. We have to do more to develop new control methods, to speed them up, “he said.

Laboratory controls can take hours, but Oleum is trying to develop methods that can examine an oil in minutes. “And in the future it will be extremely important to develop a strategy that uses the blockchain,” he added.


Traceability is key and blockchain technology will be important to track the oil from the olive grove to its point of sale, and include information on its quality from laboratory tests.

“We need to work with honest producers to try to agree on a uniform method that gives the consumer a way to check the authenticity or quality of the product from the label,” said Prof. Gallina Toschi. “Producers are asking for this.”

Europe is starting to work on full traceability models that Professor Gallina Toschi hopes can be deployed internationally in the next ten years.

Many other countries, including the United States, have their own controls and regulations for olive oil. “In this case it is extremely important to work hard for harmonization.” “As we have most of the market, we need to protect many products, so we have to be very patient to convince other regions,” he said.

Artículo original

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine

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