Friday, July 1, 2022

The ultimate proof of origin

A four-year-old Dunedin company is providing certainty that New Zealand-branded product on Chinese supermarket shelves is what it’s billed as.

Oritain Global, based at Invermay’s campus outside the city, is providing proof of origin testing. It is the only commercial company in the world so far to do so. In October it won the award for innovation in hospitality, food and beverage at the Innovators Awards.

The company’s science liaison officer Dr Rebecca McLeod said Oritain was expanding quickly as more exporters became concerned about protecting their products overseas. While some of their clients used Oritain as a point of difference for their products and told everyone to deter fraudsters (a winery will put Oritain’s logo on this season’s vintage), others preferred to keep the relationship confidential.

The few New Zealand milk producers Oritain had on its books were in the second category, McLeod said.

That the companies differed in size from small to large producers was all she would let on. They export dairy products for infants but it was the products exported to China they were most concerned about.

“The Chinese are the world’s experts on food fraud,” she said. “They are renowned for it. Even the Chinese Government acknowledges it, and their consumers know it.  The Chinese people don’t want to be buying counterfeit product, especially if it’s baby food.”

McLeod said counterfeiters used branding, country of origin labelling and similar packaging to reputable goods to sell their own product.

While people might think the problem affects only Chinese consumers, some counterfeit products have made it out of China recently and into other markets.

As well as dairy producers, Oritain also has clients that export honey, wine, apples, meat and even asparagus seeds. The science of what the company does is straight out of CSI and although people understand the concept from the television programme, what actually happens in the laboratory is a lot more complicated.

“We test 30 to 40 different elements in the sample – the elements you find on the periodic table – and measure the amount of each in a batch of product and this gives us the geochemical fingerprint.”

Geochemical refers to the “geology of the chemical” and shows where the sample came from. “In baby formulae it will be affected by where the cows were that made the milk, what grass they ate, what fertiliser was put on that grass, what was in the soil, as well as where the milk was processed, the factory the milk powder was packaged, and where the other added ingredients in the product came from. Its fingerprint is unique.”

While samples are prepared in Oritain’s lab, analysis is outsourced to the University of Otago’s Centre for Trace Element Analysis. McLeod said some of their clients had a science background so she could explain what the company did at that level. For others, she enjoys breaking down the chemistry into something they can understand.

Oritain believes its value as a company is in its product, which is based on great science, the customer service that is built around the science, the global focus of the company and its presence in the United States.

In addition to that its independence and its extensive archive of products already tested are key to what it does. Not only does it keep the analysis of each batch but it also keeps the batch, either in a dry store or frozen.

“We’re regularly collecting batches produced by clients and testing them, so if a client needs to compare it with a product that is going across a border or is for sale in another country there is something to compare it with. If we ever have to give evidence in a court our independence, plus the fact we can retest the original batch, gives weight to the case. If there is ever a question over the original analysis we can go back and do it again if we have to.

“And we keep the samples in a secure, Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI)-approved transitional facility, so no one can tamper with them.”

The dairy companies that were clients regularly got the company to test products off Chinese supermarket shelves, she said. Results take about a week because the initial analysis has already been done, although samples can be rushed through even quicker if needed.

Although Oritain has not found any problems yet with dairy products it has been able to provide a type of insurance to its clients and has cracked a whodunit on NZ asparagus seeds.

Samples must be made into liquids, using acids, heat and a variety of other methods to make each component soluble, before it is tested for its geochemical fingerprint. While Oritain would inform a client if it found anything that shouldn’t be in a sample, McLeod said food producers had their own systems to check this.

“One of the things that becomes apparent very quickly is whether the product was grown with organic or synthetic fertilisers but we’re not here to test for things like that. We’re simply looking at whether two samples match or not.

“So far we haven’t uncovered a big scandal but that could well be due to the Oritain association providing a deterrent to counterfeiters.”

It’s all in the rain

The uniqueness of rain is another way New Zealand’s milk products can be identified.

University of Otago researchers, with GNS scientists, have proved this country’s rain has a distinctive natural isotope signature that passed through pasture and into milk products.

Dr Troy Baisden, of GNS Science, said hydrogen isotopes in rain from each storm during the season when milk was produced could be tested and the information used to identify NZ dairy products. Using monthly rainfall samples from Niwa, a “map of rainfall chemistry” had been developed.

University of Otago PhD student Emad Ehtesham carried out the research and analyses of milk powders and was able to narrow the origin of the products to the North or South Island using isotopic data of milk solid contents and four fatty acids.

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