Picarro sensors can read 'nature's bar code'

Technology used for tracking carbon emissions level can be allowed to the challenge of detecting and confirming food origins.

You may have read about Picarro, which makes sensors for detecting and measuring various carbon and gas emissions. Those sensors have typically been used for finding gas leaks or for measuring how changes in weather patterns. Now, Picarro is working with agriculture and food products companies to apply the sensors to measuring the isotopes in foods.

The intention: help food companies spot check and confirm the origins of the ingredients more cost-effectively. In effect, Picarro's technology can be used to double-check that what the label or barcode says and what the food itself tells you are the same thing.

Iain Green, vice president of business development for Picarro, said every food gives off a unique isotope signature. "It's nature's bar code," he said.

So, for example, it would be possible to distinguish corn-fed cattle from Vermont from their cousins from Texas or Idaho. Similarly, Green said Picarro's technology can tell whether or not cocoa beans are from a legitimate source or whether they might be from an area of conflict in the Ivory Coast.

"Even though the bar codes on shipments may be correct, what is inside the containers is not always what you expect," Green said.

During our conversation, Green cited the example of a company that was duped for a honey shipment. Even though the labels for this particular shipment said it was from Argentina, it turned out the honey had been trans-shipped from China. That's bad for two reasons. First, the importing company was not paying the proper tariff. Second, the honey in question contained antibiotics that are regulated more closely in the United States. It turns out, however, that honey from China has a very unique signature.

Technology for tracing food origins has been available for decades. What is different now is that it is now cost-effective enough to be used more widely in food quality control operations or on processing plant manufacturing floors, Green said.

Picarro's technology costs about $100,000, which is about one-fifth the traditional cost, Green said. It costs about $1 to run a sample: there is very little same prep required, you just grind up the substance and put it in a combustion oven, he said.

Picarro expects food companies to use its technology to prove the authenticity of food origins, and the company is already working with a number of the larger ones. In addition, the technology is being used by those concerned with "fair trade" labeling, to ensure that the source is credible, Green said.

"I think it is time that legislators and consumers understand that there is more of an imperative for people to know where their food is really coming from," Green said. "This is another evolution in food tracing and sourcing verification."

Related stories:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com