In some parts of the world — maybe even this part, on occasion — the “beef” on your plate might be meat from rats, dogs, horses or camels.
High-quality beef is expensive so it can be lucrative to misrepresent high-end meat by substituting a cheaper product or ingredient.
In addition to being illegal, it reduces profits for those who produce and supply the initial product.
TruTag Technologies has an innovative solution to the problem, and it is testing it now on Australian beef in a partnership with PwC Australia and its food trust platform.
Their answer: tiny edible barcodes put directly on the meat.
The barcodes consist of microparticles of silicon dioxide, explained Barry McDonogh, senior vice-president of business development for TruTag. The microscopic particles reflect light in a unique and specific way.
“We have a particular device that we shine light at those tags and it reflects that light back up. We acknowledge the presence of these tags and then we decode them. And then we know that that meat is authentic meat,” he said.
“With the counterfeiting problem, a lot of people try to look towards the packaging, and a means of authenticating the packaging rather than the product itself. But the problem is … it’s usually quite easy to replicate printing and packaging.”
Barcodes and QR codes allow some traceability, “but why are we protecting the packaging when we can protect the product itself,” said McDonogh.
In the case of Australian beef sold into China, it’s not unheard of for a 100,000 tonne shipment to become 200,000 tonnes somewhere en route, with other, cheaper meat being represented as the original product to make up the new balance.
McDonogh himself, who particularly enjoys calamari, has learned that pig intestines can be a substitute, much to his chagrin.
“We’ve been a real victim of globalization and the quest for reduced costs by outsourcing and that’s led to a real lack of visibility in the supply chain,” he said.
“This happens right across the world, both in developing and developed nations.”
Outsourcing and smaller supply chains increase the opportunities for food substitutions. Quality checks become more difficult to make and to verify.
But what’s to prevent some other company from using microparticles, which are relatively cheap to produce?
“This is where the crazy science comes in,” said McDonogh. “We control the size of the pores, the number of the pores and the shapes of the pores and in doing that … that’s where our ‘secret sauce’ is. So when we shine light at that, it will reflect back at a particular spectral index.
“We’re encoding those particles. That’s where we add a level of security. It’s not just binary, that’s there’s one particular code. We could have a code for a different country, from each different type of meat, and different distributor all the way down to the individual batch level.”
The particles stay with the product through its life cycle and can be authenticated at any point in the supply chain. The edible barcodes are safe to ingest, invisible to the naked eye and survive cooking and even human digestion.
TruTag, based in Hawaii, is not working on food and beverage products in Canada at present, said McDonogh. But he said it is working with a company on identifying and authenticating marijuana and has also proven the technology on pharmaceuticals, right down to authentication of individual pills.
The trial with PwC Australia involves edible bar codes on the transparent plastic film applied to beef packages at retail. Ultimately, the technology will be applied to the plastic film, the meat itself and the label, for three levels of authentication, McDonogh said.
That verification is compatible with blockchain technology. The blockchain database can track movement of a product, which can be seen by everyone, anywhere along the supply chain, so long as they have a code or tracking number.
McDonogh equates it to the tracking number on a courier package, which can be seen by anyone who has access to that number.
“You can have a very secure digital back end but you have to be able to have a hook into the physical asset,” he said.
“That’s really what our tags are. They are a very, very secure link between the physical side of the world and the digital side of the world. These tags are very, very difficult to copy so it means that link between the digital and the physical is very, very secure.”