Jamaica only Caribbean country in IAEA project to help fight food fraud

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VIENNA, Austria (CMC) — Jamaica is the only Caribbean country included in a five-year research project announced yesterday by the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refine methods to apply nuclear-derived techniques to test for accuracy in food labels.

It said that the participating countries in the research project, which started with a kick-off meeting last week, are China, Costa Rica, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, New Zealand, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand and Uruguay.

The IAEA said that the outcome of the project, carried out in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, will assist countries in combating fraud in high-value food products, such as premium honey, coffee, and speciality rice varieties.

“Numerous foods are sold at premium prices because of specific production methods, or geographical origins,” said project coordinator and IAEA food safety specialist Simon Kelly.

“In order to protect consumers from fraud, and potential unintended food safety issues, we need standardised methods to confirm that the product has the characteristics that are claimed on the label.”

The project will help countries apply stable isotope techniques to protect and promote foods with added-value, such as organic food or products with specific geographical origins like Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

The method works by looking at the ratio of stable isotopes in elements —such as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon — and the concentration of elements in a sample of the product. These can provide a unique fingerprint that links a crop to the place where it is cultivated.

“DNA will tell your parentage but not where you were brought up, whereas the isotopes the food product has absorbed from the environment reflect where they grow,” said Russell Frew, professor of chemistry at the University of Otago in New Zealand and one of the experts taking part in the project.

According to the IAEA, fraud is a growing problem in the food industry, affecting countries globally and hurting exports, and that the research project will help developing countries increase compliance with regulatory requirements, thus facilitating trade.

Prized for its aroma and low-acidity, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is among the world’s most expensive, making it prone to counterfeiting.

“It is really important for us to protect our coffee,” said Leslie Ann Hoo Fung, a researcher at the International Centre for Environment and Nuclear Sciences in Kingston.

“We want to apply nuclear techniques to differentiate Blue Mountain from High Mountain coffee, for example, as they command different price points,” she added.

Jamaica also wants to look at the applicability of the technique to other premium national commodities, such as cocoa and rum.

The IAEA, jointly with the FAO, helps its member states use nuclear and related techniques for science-based solutions to improve food safety and security and sustainable agricultural practices.

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