Food: Anti-fraud laser for fast and reliable control

A laser capable of detecting in a few seconds toxic substances in food on market and supermarket stands, due to bad storage such as histamine in fish or chemical additives added to food, as in the case of milk powder adulterated with melamine, a compound used to manufacture glues and plastics. This thanks to leading ENEA technologies to detect food fraud, developed at the Frascati Research Center in collaboration with six industrial partners,  as part of the three-year project SAL-CQO, financed by the Ministry of the Economic Development with 3 million euro. This food anti-counterfeiting technologies allow to assess if fruit juices have been watered down or added with sweeteners not reported in the label,  extra-virgin oil has been thinned out with lower cost vegetable oils or an excess of methanol is present in wine.

“We have developed an innovative optical tool, based on an infrared laser technology, allowing to detect food fraud and ensure quality and safety of the food that ends up on our tables.  We are still in a testing phase, but we intend to develop soon portable and handy equipment for a rapid and accurate analysis of food, both in stores and manufacturing plants, to be given to all institutions involved in monitoring and to industries and distribution chains aiming at keeping high quality standards. All this will be possible without the need for highly-skilled personnel”, Gianfranco Giubileo, at the ENEA Diagnostics and Metrology Laboratory, said.

The ENEA team of researchers thinks beyond and is already testing portable tools in which a laser beam could travel along an optical fiber or be replaced by a LED, without excluding the possibility of creating miniaturized systems and apps for smartphones for a food quality screening just seconds before buying it, to assess storage quality, for example a proper management of the cold chain in the case of frozen food. “Currently-the researcher Adriana Puiu added- there are no tools on the market with these characteristics, so anti-fraud controls are based on complex laboratory tests that are time-consuming and require expensive equipment and specialized personnel. The results of our project gives hope of shortly obtaining fast, reliable and easy-to-perform quality controls”.

Up to now the ENEA food anti-counterfeiting technology has been tested on several food products, such as fish and fruit juices. In the first, the laser system allowed to assess the presence of histamine, a toxic molecule that is formed when the fish is old or improperly stored (in 2013 it caused thousands of food poisoning cases across Europe). As for histamine, which is most often associated with tuna, sardines, mackarel and anchovis, cooking, freezing or canning cannot inactivate bacteria and the only way to ensure consumer protection  is preventive control. In fruit juices and light soft drinks  the high-tech ENEA technology could detect the presence and quantity of five sweeteners (fructose, glucose, aspartame and saccharose) not declared in the label.

For more information please contact:

Antonio Palucci, ENEA – Head Laboratory of Diagnostics and Metrology

Adriana Puiu, ENEA – Laboratory of Diagnostics and Metrology

Gianfranco Giubileo, ENEA – Labortory of Diagnostics and Metrology

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