CSI: Supermarket—Using Science to Combat Food Fraud

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Replacing a restaurant's fine coffee with Folger's crystals may turn out hunky-dory in commercials. In real life, though, people who have shelled out good money for gourmet food or fine wine would probably be a bit peeved to learn that they'd been duped. Yet food fraud happens more often than most people realize—and not just with olive oil, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

The Washington Post had an article last week about the challenge of sniffing out faux Pinot and cow's milk cheese in sheep's milk's clothing, when the Food and Drug Administration already has its hands full with public health issues, like E. coli-contaminated burgers. According to the article, some experts estimate that 5 to 7 percent of food in America—and possibly more—may be sold as something it isn't: honey that's mixed with corn syrup; inexpensive Vietnamese catfish sold as pricier snapper; low-grade domestic fish eggs passed off as prized sturgeon caviar.

It's not that we don't have the tools to uncover the deception. In fact, new food forensics techniques are being developed all the time. DNA testing can reveal the true identity of a shipment of crustacean meat: Chesapeake blue crab or a foreign impostor. (Not that any self-respecting Marylander would be fooled, right?) The same goes for other frequently fudged foods.

The latest weapon in the arsenal against food fraud could be described as the silver lining on the mushroom cloud: decades of nuclear testing make it easier for scientists to tell with precision a wine's vintage. This is not such a big deal for people like me, who buy bottles in the under-20-dollar range. But for collectors of fine wines, who pay upwards of thousands of dollars for a prized bottle from a particularly good vintage, it's a serious issue.

Last month scientists explained at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society how they could determine a wine's vintage by measuring the amount of the isotope carbon-14 (C-14) in the atmosphere the year the grapes used in a wine were harvested. The ratio of the relatively uncommon C-14 to the more stable and abundant C-12 remained fairly constant for thousands of years, until nuclear testing began in the 1940s, causing an increase in C-14. When the testing stopped in 1963, the ratio slowly changed again. Since traces of the radioactive carbon in the atmosphere were absorbed by the growing grapes, each year has a particular "bomb-pulse" that scientists can measure to accurately pinpoint a wine's vintage.

Carbon dating has already been used in high-stakes counterfeit cases, as described in a 2007 New Yorker article. But, considering everything else the FDA has on its plate, it's unlikely they'll incorporate the nuclear option into its regular investigations anytime soon.

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