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Laser device designed for Mars unmasks counterfeit honey

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February 13, 2013

The laser isotope ratio-meter, which is being used to detect counterfeit honey

The laser isotope ratio-meter, which is being used to detect counterfeit honey

When someone mentions counterfeiting, it brings up images of money, watches or DVDs. It certainly doesn't make honey spring to mind, yet honey smuggling and counterfeiting is an international problem involving hundreds of millions of dollars. In an effort to combat this, the European Space Agency (ESA) is funding a demonstration project to adopt lasers designed to study the Martian atmosphere, to detect fake honey.

The United States consumes 400 million pounds (181 million kg) of honey per year, of which 53 percent is imported. In recent years, smuggled and counterfeit honey has become a major problem in the US and the EU. Mainland China has been the source of large quantities of honey contaminated with lead and illegal antibiotics that is illegally transshipped through India and relabeled before going on. Some of this honey isn't even honey, but a mixture of a small portion of real honey adulterated with sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn syrup, rice syrup, jaggery, barley malt sweetener, beet syrup or other additives. Similar problems occur with other foods, such as olive oil, chocolate and saffron.

One way of identifying such smuggled and counterfeit honey is by pollen analysis, which can pinpoint its origin based on the flowers the bees visited, but the Chinese often ultrafiltrate their honey to remove these traces. A method less easy to dodge is to study the isotope ratios of the atoms that make up the honey. Different ratios indicate where the honey came from and its composition, so both smuggled and fake honey can be detected. Take a sample of the honey, burn a few milligrams and measure the isotopes of carbon dioxide that it gives off to get the answer.

The tricky bit is coming up with equipment for measuring isotopes that’s both sensitive enough for the job, yet portable enough that samples don’t need to be sent back to a central laboratory. The answer to this problem came from, of all places, Mars.

Seven years ago, Britain’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) began development of a laser that could be used to hunt for methane in the atmosphere of the Red Planet. The result was the laser “isotope ratio-meter,” which is sensitive enough for isotope analysis using tunable infrared lasers on very small samples, yet lightweight and compact.

“You take a laser, whose optical frequency or ‘color’ can be continuously adjusted, beam it at a gas sample, and detect the level passing through the gas,” said Dr. Damien Weidmann, Laser Spectroscopy Team Leader at RAL Space. “Each molecule, and each of its isotopic forms, has a unique fingerprint spectrum. If, on the other hand, you know what you are looking for, you can simply set the laser to the appropriate frequency.”

Though it hasn't yet flown in space, the laser is being turned toward the identification of fake food through funding from ESA for a Technology Transfer Demonstration project.

Source: ESA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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10 Comments

Why anyone still buys from China is astounding! Crap, crap and more crap!

Max Kennedy
13th February, 2013 @ 04:34 pm PST

This article sets off my "bullshit" alarm, and sounds a whole lot like "China bashing" and stuff-all about common sense. If lead is the worry, test for lead. Same for antibiotics. If the honey "isn't even honey"... I mean, seriously, no gizmag reader is dumb enough to believe that a martian laser is the only way to notice that.

The word "illegal" appears too often in this article (and both times, used wrongly) - someone's busy trying to "illegally" manipulate our opinions here...

christopher
13th February, 2013 @ 04:36 pm PST

Hey, I want to think Honey is a typo but this recurred so many times, what is actually fake Honey??

phissith
13th February, 2013 @ 04:50 pm PST

Well I'd reckon we should call it "Phoney".

Warwick Hook
13th February, 2013 @ 05:25 pm PST

@Max Kennedy

because its cheaper ;]

laser is not the only way, but it can be the cheapest one if you can verify "honey" without opening any jar.

Jan Cooper-nikus
14th February, 2013 @ 01:28 am PST

PRC history of adulterated products toothpaste, dog food, baby bottles, and so forth makes it impossible to "bash china" on adulterated products.

The portable laser makes the test take minutes not days. For people paid by the mile this is a godsend.

Slowburn
14th February, 2013 @ 05:34 am PST

@ christopher, is "too often" for you, one? The word "illegal" is only in the story once. And then "illegally" is used once. That's all.

Sounds like you're butt hurt about China,once again, being called out for their propensity to produce counterfeit, fake, cheap, stolen IP, contaminated, unsafeproducts as they have been thousands of times before.

JMonroe
14th February, 2013 @ 08:57 am PST

If the US is getting counterfit food and products and still finding them, think what is happening in the UK with its Government abandoning testing for industry handshakes. We all need this device

L1ma
14th February, 2013 @ 11:43 am PST

phissith asked a good question, "What's fake honey?" According to the American Honey Producers Association, 'fake honey' most often is high fructose corn syrup with artificial honey flavor added. But any liquid sugar (such as those listed by GizMag) can be flavored and colored; then it's labelled as 'honey'. But it's fake honey.

The US FDA defines "fake honey" as honey that doesn't contain pollen (a definition chosen because honey can be easily be tested for the presence of honey, such as using a microscope to see the grains of pollen.) But, as the GizMag article notes, some honey producers ultra-filter their honey, removing pollen. Genuine honey that has been ultra-filtered is more difficult to distinguish from fake honey.

In August, 2012, an article reported data from their tests of store-bought honey. The authors conclude, "More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce, according to testing done exclusively for Food Safety News."

See: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/#.UR1Wluj4E8Y

Another component of some fake honey are antibiotics (as Gizmag mentioned.) Genuine honey naturally contains antibiotics made and added to the honey by bees. Most folks consider this bee-made antibiotic to be safe But the antibiotics added to fake honey can be any of a wide variety of antibiotics. But, given that the antibiotic isn't even listed as an ingredient, it would require expensive tests to determine which which antibiotic(s) are present and in what concentration(s). Most consumers object to consuming antibiotics of unknown type and amount.

PaulW
14th February, 2013 @ 02:11 pm PST

Chinese slave labor making our products? No problem. Chinese lead showing up in the slave labor products? Now wait just a minute...

Various world economies should have stopped benefiting from cheap Chinese manufacturing long ago for moral reasons; not reasons of product quality, or health hazards, or environmental concerns. (Of course this opinion applies to other countries' populations being abused as well, not just China).

It's sad to see how easily greed seduces some of us. Perhaps what is even more sad, is that this tendency is seen all throughout history. There's nothing unique happening with our modern slave labor. Except perhaps that now with modern communication technology, the entire world chooses to turn a blind eye. How strange that some think so highly of humans in general, yet at the same time treat each other like worthless dirt.

GeoMoon5
24th February, 2013 @ 02:30 pm PST
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