New science that can smell the exact origin of food is our first defense.
As we begin to care more and more about the origins of our food, it also gives shady food purveyors the opportunity to try to take advantage.
Lesley Chesson once took a road trip and collected as many “milk chugs” from McDonald’s Happy Meals as she could stuff inside a giant cooler in the back of her car. Another time, she requested students bring her cans of Coca-Cola. Chesson also asked dairy farmers to fill travel-sized shampoo bottles and overnight her milk samples. It’s not that she’s a hard-drinking researcher. These samples were all destined for forensic analysis.
Chesson is what you might call a food sleuth, a scientist whose primary interest is food authenticity. She’s an assistant professor at the University of Utah and also works at a research company called IsoForensics in Salt Lake City. What her work reveals: Even when a label can’t tell you where a food is coming from, chemical fingerprinting can.
Food fraud, economic adulteration, and food counterfeiting tend to fly under the radar of federal regulators, despite estimated global losses of about $49 billion, because adulteration doesn’t always translate into sick and dying kids (perhaps with the notable exception of melamine in milk). Moreover, says John Spink, a expert on food fraud at Michigan State University: “In many cases, there is not a clear violation of a law or regulation. This is a chess-match with a very intelligent, resilient, creative, and driven adversary.”
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