It has been said that twice as much Barramundi is sold in Australia as farmed or caught.
What if science could come up with a system that tells us for sure that our food really is what it says on the label or on the restaurant menu?
Of course, this would be great for consumers. They would have confidence that they really were eating Gippsland Angus Beef and sipping on Margaret River Chardonnay.
Farmers would benefit too. Being able to verify the provenance of Australian food – not just the origins but also how the food was produced, i.e. using compliant pest and disease control – could potentially open up new export markets and opportunities for selling goods at a higher price.
Distributors, such as supermarket chains are also keen for a traceability and authentication system. If this was in place when the needles in the strawberries incident occurred, they wouldn’t have had to take all the strawberries off the shelf, only those from the supplier where tampering had occurred.
Creating a provenance system
Research Scientist at CSIRO, Dr Nina Welti is embarking on an ambitious project to build a Verified Provence System, which she describes as being like a fingerprint database for Australian regions and Australian food.
“Every place has a unique set of environmental markers, a bit like fingerprints, that come from the chemical makeup of the local soil, the water supply and weather conditions,” explains Dr Welti.
“Plants and animals carry these markers, whether its beef, grains, seafood, wine or fruits and vegetables. They also carry information related to how they were farmed, for example fertiliser use, whether an animal was pasture fed or grain fed, or whether it is wild caught or farmed fish.”
Dr Welti’s work is part of larger research mission CSIRO is developing in collaboration with government, other research organisations and industry, aimed at substantially growing Australia’s agrifood exports.
“Australia has long had a reputation for its safe and pest- and disease-free produce, so being able to authenticate our produce will give us an advantage in overseas markets and build brand Australia.”
Currently, the main way to track food is through uniquely identifiable packaging which is traced along the supply chain. These systems will remain important but can be susceptible to substitution, dilution or misrepresentation along the supply chain, such as we have seen recently with cherries falsely labelled as Tasmanian.
Build the system and they will come
Dr Welti says that we need a collaborative approach to building a Verified Provence System that uses data from across a range of sources to develop a national food ‘fingerprint’ that works across commodities and regions.
These might include existing measurements such as on-farm soil sampling or citizen science projects. Wherever possible, the researchers are working on low-cost measurement techniques.
Over time, the plan is to map environmental markers across Australia at a regional scale and then develop models that will make it possible to predict the ‘fingerprints’ of certain foods, linking them back to their region of origin.
The system won’t just be limited to identifying the origin of foods but also production methods, such as would be needed to meet sustainability credentials or food safety standards. This would link with ongoing work around automated compliance and on-farm technologies.
The result would be the ability to answer questions such as: Is it organic? Is it from Tasmania? Is it salmon?
What about further along the supply chain?
The data gathered from various sources would be maintained and brought together so it can be verified at any stage along the supply chain, even when a Batlow apple becomes a juice, or a pork leg is converted to prosciutto.
“This way, provenance in Australia could be traced from the farm through processing, packaging and transporting until goods are sold in a store and ultimately reach the consumer,” Dr Welti said.
Before long, it should be possible to say that the amount of Barramundi sold in Australia equals the amount that is produced.
The other exciting thing about this technology is that it also has potential to be applied to industries such as building materials, minerals, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement and criminal investigation.