Space lasers to thwart counterfeit olive oil trade

Olive oil fraud dates back to the time of Julius Caesar. Now a laser developed to measure gases on Mars could help stop this earthly problem.

A super accurate laser technology was developed over the past decade to measure gases in the Martian atmosphere. Now, researchers are shifting their focus to a more practical, earthly application: thwarting food fraud. Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

About $19.6 billion worth of olive oil is traded globally every year. The item is one of the most fraudulent foods, a problem dating back to the time of Julius Caesar. Just last month, European lawmakers tried to address the booming trade in counterfeit olive oil by proposing a ban on refillable olive oil containers at restaurants and bars.

And while there’s no way to know exactly how much is cut with a lower-quality oil, chances are you’ve bought extra-virgin olive oil recently that’s neither “extra virgin,” nor even 100 percent olive oil, food quality researchers say.

The laser technology -- isotope ratio-meter -- measures and authenticates a sample’s molecular structure when it’s converted from a solid or liquid to a gas. Specifically, it isolates basic isotopes to determine if the substance 100 percent pure or if it’s been mixed with something similar.

So, a Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) team led by Damien Weidmann burned small olive oil samples under a flame and measured the gases it emitted to determine its type and origin.

Now they’re looking for commercial partners to develop shoebox-sized prototypes for field testing. Weidmann wants to make the fraud detection tool inexpensive and mobile, although another $294,000 or so would be needed to bring a smaller version to market.

In a first-of-its kind brainstorming session, the International Olive Council will convene a summit with scientists to develop new innovations to combat this centuries-old fraud problem this month.

The same kind of testing could verify the authenticity of honey and chocolate as well.

[Via Businessweek]

Image: fdecomite via Flickr

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