Cracking down on fake steak with invisible, trackable beef barcodes

by

Necia Wilden

You can Shazam a song: what if you could Shazam your steak? Well, before too long, it will be possible to point your smartphone at a premium cut of Australian beef, fire up an app and …voila! Up comes the meat’s entire back story including where it was raised, what it ate and when and where it was processed.

In a world-first for the food sector, accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers has developed an electronic etching procedure that creates an invisible, trackable barcode for beef based on edible, non-toxic silicon dioxide.

Aimed at fighting the growing global issue of food fraud, the revolutionary beef-tagging technology is expected to be launched in the export market by the end of the year, and in Australia within the next 12 months.

Sydney butcher Anthony Puharich, who has partnered with PwC in bringing the tracking system to market, says it represents “a seismic shift” for the industry.

The PwC technology uses nano-scale silicon dioxide particles sprayed onto meat as it is packed in Australia. It is ...
The PwC technology uses nano-scale silicon dioxide particles sprayed onto meat as it is packed in Australia. It is scanned at the point of sale overseas to confirm the product’s authenticity.

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“It will give customers complete confidence in the provenance of the meat they’re buying, from paddock to plate,” he says. “This is the next level of food security.”

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The procedure starts in the abattoir, where sides of beef are sprayed with particles of silicon dioxide as fine as castor sugar.

This natural, edible fingerprint, similar to traceability signatures already used in the pharmaceutical industry, forms a crypto anchor that can be scanned using a hyper-spectrum gun.

This shines a light onto the micro particles of silicon dioxide and refracts back a wavelength signature, or what PwC national agribusiness leader Craig Heraghty calls “a unique serial number on a piece of steak”.

Heraghty, who is working with researchers to enable scanning by smartphone cameras, says the security device is “step one in a multi-step approach to beat the fraudsters” and will be followed by similar devices for wine and dairy products as part of a Food Trust Platform developed by PwC over the past 2½ years.

Globally, counterfeit food costs $65 billion a year, while retail sales of fraudulent “Australian”-branded beef alone are worth about $2 billion a year, says Heraghty.

In China, where the beef micro tag will be launched, it’s estimated that just half the Australian-branded beef on offer actually comes from here.

While PwC’s Food Trust Platform has been driven primarily by plummeting consumer confidence in premium brands in the export market, the local industry has been quick to get on board.

Puharich, of Vic’s Premium Quality Meat, has been trialling the tracking system with beef producers Rangers Valley and Greenham (the name behind the Cape Grim brand) and is planning to roll it out at his upscale Woollahra butcher shop Victor Churchill by mid-next year.

“It was such a pie-in-the-sky idea when it was first floated,” says Puharich. “I wasn’t even sure it was possible.

He says not everyone will be happy. “The public will be ecstatic, but there are a lot of people who’ve profited from selling products that aren’t what they claim they are.

“This will enable full transparency of the product’s provenance.”

Potentially, the tagging could be done at every stage of the process, enabling even individual steaks to be tagged.

Initially, the micro tag will be embedded in the beef’s primary packaging only. While silicon dioxide is approved as a food additive by Australia’s food safety agency FSANZ – it’s the “anti-caking” agent used in dry mixes such as powdered milk, spices etc – its approval for application in a tracking and serialisation system is pending, says Heraghty.

“We’re told this could take several months and our clients and the market want a solution now, so we’re pushing ahead with primary packaging as the carrier of the device in the meantime,” he says.

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