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'Nature's Barcode' Tells The Story Of Foods' True Origin

As we've reported, fish fraud – labeling a less-desirable species as a more desirable one – is more widespread than you'd think. Olive oil, too, isn't always what it seems. And honey from Asia is fraught with suspicion.

Until now bar codes, certification seals and electronic ID chips have been the main tools to cement consumers' confidence in food products.

But as the recent fish and olive scandals show, they're far from foolproof. Food can be substituted or adulterated at any point in the supply chain, often without companies knowing.

Enter the "optical stable isotope analyzer," a not-too-sexy name for a device that could provide a lot more certainty about a product near the end of its long journey to the consumer.

Already in use to measure air quality and detect gas leaks, the technology, created by the Silicon Valley firm Picarro, can also detect isotopes in food.

Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon — found in everything from hamburger to oranges — leave a detailed signature behind illustrating the weather, plant type, growing conditions and manufacturing processes. Picarro calls it "nature's barcode." By analyzing the isotopes — versions of common atoms that have slightly different masses – in this barcode, the Picarro device can detect minute differences in the chemical composition of foods.

Access to this information could be a boon for food companies, government agencies and consumers who want to ensure raw ingredients and additives are really what they say they are. The company says it has already shown that isotope analysis can tell the difference between grassfed and corn-fed beef and the origin of various oils.

The device is the size of bread box and a little taller than a soda can, says Picarro's director of business development, Iain Green. "So it is very portable. We've used it in moving boats on the Sacramento River, in cars, and in fields in China. You just cut or grind food up and stick it in the machine."

At $90,000, it also costs significantly less than its predecessor, the bulky mass spectrometer, which sets companies back a half million dollars and takes up 15 square feet of lab space. The lasers in the Picarro also mean tests cost $.50 to $1 each and the samples need no preparation.

"Everyone in the field now wants one of these devices," says Lesley Chesson, a senior scientist with IsoForensics, a Salt Lake City company that also uses isotopes to verify food authenticity. "It is revolutionizing the way we collect and analyze data because we can now easily and cheaply test samples in the back of a van or on an airplane. You don't need to collect perishable samples and hope you can get them to a lab in time anymore."

But don't expect an app like this available to test the food on your plate anytime soon. That is years away.

In the meantime, consumer groups, government agencies, and farmer cooperatives who can get their hands on the device will likely be putting it to good use to get the food record straight.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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