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How NIR Spectroscopy technology can combat the deadly food-fraud crisis in the COVID-19 era

Youssri Helmy
7 min Read
March 23, 2023

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In a time of global pandemic, social upheaval and economic downturn, the challenge of food fraud—the deliberate alteration, substitution, interference or misrepresentation of food—may not appear to be a very pressing issue for global consumers. However, the multibillion-dollar food-fraud crisis has only become more acute amid the COVID-19 contagion, creating an environment where this kind of criminality can thrive, a phenomenon that’s threatening the health of consumers worldwide.

With leading corporations, governments and other organizations now focused on tackling this issue, there’s a growing demand for fast, accurate and widely accessible food testing. Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) technology represents an effective method of testing food to determine the integrity of ingredients. Recent developments have dramatically reduced the cost and increased the utility of NIRS food-testing technology, democratizing this type of analysis by making it available to all stakeholders across the food value-chain—from farm to fork.

Food fraud crisis costs billions

Every year, food fraud costs the global food and beverage industry an estimated $30 to $40 billion. More importantly, this fraudulent activity can harm consumers’ health, as several high-profile incidents have proven.

Fraudsters engage in multiple forms of this crime, including substituting products, introducing unapproved additives and misrepresenting food attributes. Criminals sometimes even intentionally contaminate food with various of chemicals or other substances.

These actions can have grave consequences. In just one incident in 2008, more than 300,000 infants in China were sickened—and six died—after consuming contaminated baby formula. The formula had been altered with the addition of the organic compound melamine to boost its protein level.

Other high-profile food fraud incidents include the widespread contamination of beef products with horsemeat and pork in Ireland in 2013. The horsemeat scandal—as it was called—may have been perpetrated by a criminal organization, raising fears of systemic food fraud. In tests of frozen burger patties and ready-made meals at supermarkets, more than one third of the samples contained horse DNA, while pig DNA was present in 85 percent.

The issue of food fraud has been taken up by various organizations, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommending actions to ensure the authenticity of the global food supply. One key recommendation was to base food certification systems on objective evidence—including recording the results of validated test methods for quality, safety and authenticity.

COVID crisis brings food-fraud issue to the forefront

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the profile of the food-fraud crisis. The government regulator Food Standards Scotland (FSS) in July warned that the pandemic is promoting an environment where food fraud has become endemic.

“With some disruption to the usual supply chains, and more people staying at home more often due to lockdown, there have been opportunities for unscrupulous traders and individuals to cut corners and sell direct to individuals and retailers. This could include for example meat and fish products that have not been properly processed through the supply chain, or cheap fake alcohol,” the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit stated.

The Global Food Safety Resource has warned that COVID-19 has spurred food-fraud schemes that target the poor and hungry.

“The Coronavirus has created the perfect storm for those who commit food fraud. People who are desperate for food, or fearful that there will be food shortages and hunger, will eat almost anything, depending on how dire their circumstances are,” the organization warned. “Unfortunately, the Coronavirus has impacted the poor and low-income populations the most.”

Testing ensures food supply integrity

One common approach to detecting potential food contamination involves the use of genetic testing to identify the DNA within samples. While such testing can be conducted in the field, it most often requires samples to be sent to labs for evaluation—slowing down the process and driving up the cost and complexity of testing. With food fraud potentially occurring anywhere and at any time throughout the global food supply chain, a lab-dependent approach like this would be impractical for widespread testing.

However, an alternative approach—using NIRS technology—can deliver the kind of capabilities required to meet the food-fraud challenge. Operating around the infrared bands, NIRS works by shining a light on a material and then analyzing the resulting interaction. Since every material has a unique response to light, the analysis of the light interacting with a certain material can reveal critical information about its composition.

Conventional approaches to NIRS analysis are lab-based, requiring expensive bench-mounted equipment and expert operators. However, a new approach to NIRS has arrived on the scene that cuts the cost and complexity of NIRS analysis, making it possible to conduct tests and obtain results instantaneously in the field.

Si-Ware’s NeoSpectra sensors can deliver NIRS detection and analysis with a level of performance comparable to lab-based systems currently on the market. Rather than being built from distinct components, each NeoSpectra sensor is fabricated on a single microchip. This allows the sensors to take advantage of the efficiency and economies of scale inherent in semiconductor manufacturing, dramatically reducing their cost.

This approach also cuts the cost of the solution—and makes it possible to easily use it in a wide-range of devices—from large-scale systems to handheld devices. As a result, the NeoSpectra sensor can enable the proliferation of NIRS food testing. Such a solution will find receptive audiences throughout most of the food supply chain, including those businesses involved in production, processing and distribution of foodstuffs. These organizations can make extensive use of NeoSpectra sensors to ensure their products are free from tampering or contamination.

A handheld scanner, such as the NeoSpectra-Scanner, also would be attractive to governmental regulatory bodies in charge of maintaining the integrity of the food supply. These organizations could make extensive use of such scanners, employing them for everything from spot checks to full-blown investigations of potential food-fraud incidents.

However, the NeoSpectra sensor’s impact could spread even further through the supply chain—potentially finding acceptance among consumers. Using the low-cost, small form-factor NeoSpectra sensors, consumers could engage in their own food testing. Users could check their food independently, monitoring for fraudulent ingredients and other potential issues. This kind of testing would give consumers assurance that the food they and their families are consuming contains the expected ingredients—and is free from dangerous contaminants.

In an era when the food supply chain is more widespread and complex than ever before—and when COVID-19 is exacerbating food insecurity issues—the issue of food fraud has become increasingly critical. NIRS detection using NeoSpectra sensors and scanners can detect incidents of food contamination throughout the food supply chain, even at the consumer level.

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