Tracing food origins

Groundbreaking technology enables New Zealand company Oritain to trace the place of origin of any food, with far-reaching implications in the global battle against food fraud. Zoe Meunier reports

Bangalow pork. Rockhampton lobster. Stewart Island salmon. A food’s origin not only suggests its standard of excellence and answers ethical questions, but everything about the natural environment the produce was harvested in—from soil to topography to climate—is what gives the product its distinctive characteristics and flavour. The question is, how much certainty can restaurateurs have that the product they’re serving is what’s been advertised?

Now, world-leading technology has been developed by the company Oritain to answer those questions once and for all, examining and testing those very elements that make up a product’s natural environment to create a ‘chemical fingerprint’ of origin so accurate as to be admissible in a court of law.

Created by leading academics from New Zealand’s University of Otago in 2008, Oritain’s technology actually emerged from the forensic field.

“What we’ve done is take the science that comes out of the criminal forensic field-—which has been used to prove where bodies, bullets and shards of glass come from—and then apply it to the origin of food,” says Oritain CEO Grant Cochrane.

With the ability to trace down from country to region to farm level of origin, Oritain’s complex scientific technology can be used to test everything from horticulture to dairy, meat, poultry, eggs, honey, fibre and aquaculture, milk and milk powders and even pharmaceuticals.

Down to a science

Explaining the complex science in layman’s terms, Oritain marketing director Todd Gordon says, “Using an apple as an example, as that apple grows on a tree in an orchard, it absorbs the natural chemical compositions of its environment, which are unique to anywhere else in the world. We sample and test the flesh of those apples and measure the concentration of all those different elements, to achieve what we call a chemical footprint of that piece of fruit. We build a database of NZ apples, and what they look like, and a database of Golden Valley apples and what they look like, then analyse the differences between them.

“What we’ve done is take the science out of the criminal field  … and then apply it to the origin of food.”—Grant Cochrane, CEO, Oritain

“The advantage of scientific testing is we’re testing the actual product, not its packaging. So we can tell where an apple— even one without a label—comes from, if we have a database.”

Now some 30 to 40 companies have employed the company’s services to earn the Oritain ‘trustmark’ as a measure to safeguard their reputation and protect against the growing problem of food fraud.

A global issue

A worldwide issue affecting up to 10 per cent of food supply at an estimated cost of US$50b, food fraud is defined as intentionally using deception for economic gain involving food. It came under the global spotlight following the European horsemeat scandal in 2013 and the 2008 melamine scandal in China, but food fraud can encompass anything from adulterating to mislabelling or diluting products—and some cases are occurring close to home.

Gordon explains: “There have been issues in Australia with free-range eggs, issues with organic claims, there are current issues questioning the origin of honey. So firstly, brands need to be really careful about the promises they make to consumers, and secondly, a lot of consumers are getting more interested in knowing where their food is coming from and brands need to be able to fulfil those promises.”

This is backed by a 2016 study which found 94 per cent of consumers say food product transparency is important and impacts their purchase.

Taking pride

Egg producer Farm Pride has been one of the first companies in Australia to use the technology to trace the free-range origins of its eggs. CEO Bruce De Lacy says it’s about strengthening their brand.

“A lot of consumers are getting more interested in knowing where their food is coming from and brands need to be able to fulfil those promises.”—Todd Gordon, marketing director, Oritain

“There have been a number of successful ACCC prosecutions in the recent past for egg substitution, so we felt the consumer’s confidence in free-range eggs has probably been impacted upon,” he explains. “We had robust controls already in place, but we thought there’s got to be something else we can do to demonstrate what we’re doing is fair dinkum, so we approached Oritain. We wanted to lead the market and felt by using Oritain we could add another level of assurance to our supply chain, and Oritain is really about supply chain audit…Our brand is such a valuable asset, so this was a great opportunity to further enhance our brand and demonstrate we’ve got nothing to hide.”

For restaurateurs, Gordon says Oritain’s technology can ensure any claims made about the provenance of their produce can be substantiated.

“As a restaurateur who’s making those claims to charge your consumers a premium, can you stand behind them? If challenged, could you prove the beef you’re serving is actually from Tasmania? Most rely a lot on trust and their wholesale provider telling them that, ‘yes, it’s from Tasmania’. That wholesale provider is relying on somebody else to say the same thing, but [prior to now] there’s no test and no packaging that will do it, so that’s the role we play. As a restaurant, there’s a test available to them to prove they’re buying New Zealand lamb or Australian prawns.”

Cochrane says Oritain’s testing is a small price to pay to protect a brand’s reputation: “businesses need to take greater responsibility for their supply chains. This isn’t a cost, it’s a competitive advantage.” It’s an advantage Oritain are counting on more companies to make use of.

“This a big issue that’s going to grow and we’re going to grow with it, so the trustmark will become more widely recognised,” says Gordon, pointing out that the company will soon be adding to their offices in Dunedin and London with an office in Australia and hopefully expanding to South-East Asia, China and North America. In the meantime, he hopes more restaurants will start examining the origins of their produce in greater depth.

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