UK: Illuminating Food Fraud: Optical Technologies At The Forefront Of The Fight Against Food And Drink Counterfeiting

Last Updated: 14 December 2016
Article by Ruth Walker

The UK's National Food Crime Unit recently estimated that piracy could account for more than one billion pounds of annual UK food and drink trade1. Amidst public concern over scandals involving horse meat "beef" burgers and antifreeze "vodka", the food and drink industry is turning to high-tech solutions to protect their customers and stop counterfeiters from taking advantage of their brands' reputations. Many of the technologies being introduced originate from the optics and photonics industries.

Perhaps the most shocking food fraud scandal of recent times came to light in 2008, when over 20 companies were found to have added melamine, a flame retardant plastic, to baby formula in order to fool tests designed to ensure adequate protein content.  Around 300,000 babies became ill in China, with tainted formula being linked to 54,000 hospitalisations and 6 deaths from kidney damage and malnutrition2.

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is being used to identify melamine in baby formula down to 10 ppm.  SERS uses metal colloids or nanostructures to enhance the Raman effect, in which the frequency of laser light scattered off a sample is changed depending on its constituents.  SERS can boost the Raman signal intensity by up to 100 trillion times.

Another spectroscopic technique, near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, can probe the vibrational overtones of certain chemical bonds (e.g. CH, OH and NH).  Light at NIR wavelengths can penetrate deeply without being absorbed by water, so is suitable for testing high-moisture produce such as fruit, fish, meat and grains.  For example, NIR spectroscopy is being used to check for adulteration of ground beef with mutton, pork, organs and fillers, helping meat sellers to rebuild public trust in their products following the infamous horsemeat scandal of 2013.

A less well-publicised target of food fraudsters is the spice rack.  The product category Herbs and Spices is listed as number four in the ranking of most frequent product alerts in the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).  About 75% of these reports are due to improper composition or contaminations[3], both of which can affect the health of the consumer, as well as damage the brands of those involved in the supply chain.  For example, in 2005 over 600 finished food products were recalled in Europe and the US due to the presence of the carcinogenic red industrial floor dye Sudan 1, which had been added to chilli powder to disguise its aging3.  EU project SPICED, which has recently come to the end of its three year term, focused on improving the safety and security of the herbs and spices supply chain in the EU.  Optical technologies were among those investigated for this purpose.

UV-Vis absorption spectroscopy is commonly used to grade saffron, which is a major target for food fraud due to its extremely high production costs and retail price.  However, this technique requires grinding of the precious saffron, filtering and extraction using solvents to produce a liquid solution.  Non-destructive reflectance spectroscopy techniques are starting to be used in place of such wasteful techniques to check the composition of spices.  For example, the graph below[4] shows the reflectance spectra of ginger cut with varying amounts of allspice, a commonly used filler.  The characteristic allspice dip at ~670nm can be used to identify adulterated ginger powder.

Henry Langston, Product Manager at Ocean Optics, whose modular spectrometers were used to obtain this data, has noticed a shift in the drivers for developments in optical testing techniques in recent years from biomedical applications to solutions for the food and drink sector.  This shift has given companies in the optical testing field a different perspective on their technologies, boosting their innovation activities and causing adjustments to their intellectual property (IP) strategies.

Langston notes that an advantage of working in such a high-tech field is that while innovations are sometimes copied, copycats in markets such as China struggle to copy optical equipment to the high engineering specifications innovative companies focus their efforts on.  The territorial nature of the patent system works for Ocean Optics in this regard since they can patent their developments to carve out a space for themselves in fast-moving, competitive markets such as the US, without spending money on protection where it isn't needed.

For example, Ocean Optics' US patent number 8,797,529 illustrates the principle that allows their STS microspectrometers to fit into a 40 x 42 x 24 mm casing.  As shown below , the geometry allows for a more compact design than a traditional Czerny-Turner spectrometer.

However, producing a rival product of a similar quality is a little more complicated than copying the drawings in the patent specification.  Although the patent protects the core technology, the know-how around the implementation of the technology in the product is kept secret to protect the product not only in the company's biggest market (the US), but also in jurisdictions where competitor R&D budgets are lower.

If your company has developed an innovative way of detecting or protecting against counterfeiting, GJE may be able to help you to gain patent protection for your innovation.  During an Innovation Capture Session[5], we will help you to distil your invention and map out your overall IP strategy to complement your business plan.  We understand the importance of drafting patent specifications, where possible, with a view to your invention potentially having a broader application than you may have originally envisioned.  This can anticipate future usage of the technology in a range of industries, allowing you to license your technology to other companies, or to carve out a space which gives you an edge over your competitors.  We can also advise on IP license agreements if you are seeking to license in such technology.


1 The Food Crime Annual Strategic Assessment

2 Jane Macartney, The Times, 22 September 2008: China baby milk scandal spreads as sick toll rises to 13,000

3 SPICED: Securing the spices and herbs commodity chains in Europe against deliberate, accidental or natural biological and chemical contamination

4 © Ocean Optics, data produced using the pocket-sized Flame-S-VIS spectrometer

5 Please see, or contact one of our attorneys for further details

This article was originally published in Electro Optics magazine.

Electro Optics  magazine is a pan-European title for engineers involved in photonics business, technology and applications

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.