Fake Honey Scandal Shows Blockchain’s Value in Food Tracking
Australia is grappling with a fake honey scandal. A number of companies claiming to be selling pure honey have allegedly been mixing in other types of sweeteners such as corn syrup.
In a report released by Australian media houses Fairfax and ABC media, 28 honey brands were tested by a German lab. Bremen-based Quality Services International (QSI) was tasked by the media houses to ascertain the purity of the honey brands on sale in many Australian stores.
Sneaking through Testing Loopholes
QSI tested the samples using two different methods, of which the first was the standard C4 test. This is the method used by the Australian authorities, as well as in many other jurisdictions, to test the purity of honey. This test can detect the addition of corn and cane syrups.
While this test has been effective for a while, it has now become somewhat redundant as unscrupulous vendors have found ways to circumvent it. Andrew Lowe, the director of Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide, explained this by saying:
“The interesting thing with the current case is there has been a test underway to check if honey has been adulterated with sugar syrup from corn or sugarcane crops called the C4 test for at least a decade, [but] they’ve become more sophisticated and realized that corn and cane sugar can be detected, so they’re now mixing with syrup from other plants like rice, wheat, and beets that can’t be detected.”
As suspicions of the purity of the honey was an open secret, the media houses also asked the lab to test the samples using another method. In response, QSI used their proprietary testing method which can detect impurities able to go undetected under the C4 test. The test is called the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) test.
Interestingly, the samples of honey used in the test were all able to pass the C4 test. Zero impurities or adulterations were detected under the C4 test, however, using NMR it became clear that most of the samples included other sweeteners to their product.
Unfortunately, the global honey supply chain is affected by similar issues. The president of the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association, Phil McCabe, explains that this problem is so widespread and pervasive that it has attracted the attention of Interpol. He explained:
“Adulterated honey isn’t honey at all. By and large [the impurity] is some kind of syrup that’s been converted to look like honey, it tastes like honey. Everything about it seems to be honey when in fact it’s just sugar syrup or something else. [Consumers] don’t realize what they are buying and eating isn’t honey. That’s why Interpol is interested.”
The NMR test is an interesting example of the way that humans can leverage technology to address their problems. Lowe reiterates this fact, adding: “This German company has developed the NMR test, which they say can distinguish sugars from these other plants. [It’s] a technology-driven response to the problem of increasing adulteration in honey, but other anti-fraud technologies could be used.”
Is Blockchain Technology the Solution?
Australia’s honey supply chain is a reflection of the global food supply chain. Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with various aspects of the food products they consume. Issues include the sourcing of food items, the type of labor utilized at the point of creation or farming, fair trade, and even what kind of pesticides were used during the farming process.
Many companies are reluctant to provide this information and where it is available, it is usually unconvincing, and the trail goes dark at some point. Blockchain technology, however, is being used to address the challenges of the global food supply chain by some projects. Examples of these projects are IBM and London-based startup Provenance.
Concerning the honey supply chain, blockchain technology is a highly applicable innovation. However, as Lowe explains, it is best if the technology is used in conjunction with another tracking innovation.
He believes that the “blockchain is fine for showing an unbroken chain of custody for a product along a supply chain, revealing where something has been. [But] you want to use it with a tracer, which is something introduced like a protein that can be detected at low concentrations, or a biomarker of the product itself.”
Israeli Firm Integrates the Blockchain and Tracking Technology
An Israeli firm called Security Matters has developed a solution for Australia’s honey scandal that utilizes both blockchain technology and an innovative solution that can track honey at the molecular level.
Security Matters has created a commercial version of a technology that was created at a nuclear research facility in Soreq by the Israeli government. This innovation can introduce a permanent and irremovable mark or code to any matter be it gas, liquid, or solid.
This mark can be characterized as a molecular barcode which is immutable and hidden. Because it cannot be removed or edited in any way, the barcode provides a high level of trust in the supply chain of whatever product that holds the mark.
To further enhance security, Security Matters will record all the details in a blockchain. This will ensure that every step in the supply chain of the honey is visible and traceable. Security Matters CEO, Haggai Alon, explains:
“Every part of the product in the chain will have been marked and verified by the time it reaches the end customer. This creates full liability to each of the individual players.”
As Australia’s honey scandal highlights, there is a need for transparent food tracking solutions. The blockchain may be the solution that this industry needs.