Thursday, August 10, 2017

Food spies

No doubt about it, food poisoning is pretty miserable. For Mitchell Weinberg, it was a bad bowl of ice cream that did it.

Bad bowl of ice cream! A lot of people suffer from PFPSD (Post Food Poisoning Stress Disorder), and can never, ever, ever again eat whatever it was that made them sick. Or whatever it was they were eating before they got sick, even if it had nothing to do with making them sick. For my sister Trish, a bad childhood experience with – make that after -  ham and green bean soup – a wonderful and yummy family staple – prevents her, to this day, from enjoying it. (Note to self: I still have the Easter hambone in my freezer. First cool day in September, I’ll dig it out and make a batch for myself.)

Me? I’ll never eat oysters on the half-shell in Ireland again, I can tell you that for sure.

Anyway, Mitchell Weinberg was pretty sure certain that it was ice cream, in Shanghai, that did him in.

It also inspired the then-trade consultant to set up Inscatech — a global network of food spies. (Source: Bloomberg)

What does this company do?

In demand by multinational retailers and food producers, Inscatech and its agents scour supply chains around the world hunting for evidence of food industry fraud and malpractice. In the eight years since he founded the New York-based firm, Weinberg, 52, says China continues to be a key growth area for fraudsters as well as those developing technologies trying to counter them.

“Statistically we’re uncovering fraud about 70 percent of the time, but in China it’s very close to 100 percent,” he said. “It’s pervasive, it’s across food groups, and it’s anything you can possibly imagine.”

100 percent. That’s certainly impressive.

I’m not aware that I buy any food from China. Surely I would remember if I’d found myself cooking up “rat-meat dressed as lamb.” Surely, it would have looked, felt, and smelled a bit off, even when slathered with mint jelly.

But I don’t tend to look at where my food comes from, other than when native whatever is in the market. For canned goods? I know my Teddie’s Peanut Butter comes from Massachusetts. As do the Polar sodas. Most of my pasta comes from Italy. My butter comes from Ireland. But I’ll have to look at those tuna cans, that Progresso soup.

Inscatech is very techie. It’s:

…developing molecular markers and genetic fingerprints to help authenticate natural products and sort genuine foodstuffs from the fakes. Another approach companies are pursuing uses digital technology to track and record the provenance of food from farm to plate.

Sort of reminds me of ‘how a bill becomes a law.’ Or how a rat becomes a lamb. Or not.

I believe I’ve read about this genetic tracing before. Something about horse meat in the beef supply in Ireland. Something else about renaming fish as scallops.

Interestingly enough – at least to me – is that one of the technologies being used to track food as it makes it way up and down the food chain is the same technology – blockchain – that’s used for crypto-currencies (think bitcoin).

Blockchain technology is “essentially a shared, cryptographically secure ledger of transactions.” I.e., it makes things traceable. And it’s helping to radically cut the time it takes to track an item through the food chain. For one company – that would be Wal-Mart – the time it took to track their meat supply chain went from more than a day to a couple of seconds. I’m all for it. I’d sure rather find out that the funny smelling lamb was rat before I took a bite. In fact, I’d sure rather not ever find it out. Period. Let Wal-Mart nip it in the bud.

In real life, while I do like rat lamb, I don’t ever buy it (at Wal-Mart or anywhere else). I do, however, buy chicken, so I’m delighted that the blockchain technology will be tracking Chinese chickens from coop on through the factory and on into the meat case. Not that I eat Chinese chicken. I’m a Bell & Evans kind of gal, and those babies come from Pennsylvania.

Joke as I may about food safety, it is a pretty serious issue. Remember back in 2008 when, in China, melamine milk killed six babies?

It’s not just the Chinese, of course. Food fraudsters are everywhere.

Technology is all well and good. But, blockchain blockchain-ing throughout the entire food supply chain is still a while away from ubiquity and perfection. And as Weinberg points out:

"The problem is the data is only as reliable as the person providing the data.”


So Inscatech still relies on boots on the ground, informants who “sniff out where in the production process food-fraud is taking place.”

These folks, will, of course, find their jobs automated away at some point.

But if there’s money to be made selling fake shrimp, adulterated foods, and rat for lamb, criminals will be there selling fake shrimp, adulterated foods, and rat for lamb.

I’m delighted there’s a company like Inscatech out there, but I’m also plenty happy that I can afford to shop in places like Whole Wallet and Roche Brothers, where I mostly don’t have to worry about getting poisoned.

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