Serialisation and counterfeiting protection in the food industry
Synthetic fertiliser doesn’t belong in a sugar bowl, copper sulphate has no place in olives, and neither of them are things we’d like to eat. Yet Europol and Interpol found examples of both in a major combined operation. In just three months, 10,000 tonnes of fake food were sized, plus one million litres of beverages. But as impressive as this success may seem, it cannot put a stop to the criminal energy of organised counterfeiters. In the age of global trade, the capacities of government agencies often allow no more than random checks. Therefore, it’s all the more important for producers to find ways to stop fakes and to put consumers in a position to check the authenticity of foods.
By Thomas Völcker
That’s why the industry increasingly draws on proven systems and methods to protect its products and to make the value chain more secure. Overt and covert security features offer reliable authenticity protection. In an approach called “serialisation”, many manufacturers are now pursuing the objective of clear identification based on encrypted codes. In this context, serialisation is an effective way to protect consumers and brands at the same time. It supports quality assurance and tracing across the whole distribution chain, makes customer involvement possible and, in combination with authenticity features, also offers additional counterfeiting protection. Serialisation also makes financial sense. Not only does it reduce losses incurred by fakes, but it also mitigates the risk of food scandals and their consequences for a brand. After all, lost trust can only be regained by costly efforts to repair a tarnished image.
Serialisation: every product with a code of its own
Seamless tracking of food products from origin to till is of vital importance to quality monitoring, tracing and response in the event of a crisis. Barcodes and 2D codes are used in just about every area of product marking. Typically, products today are merely marked with an article number. An additional, variable imprint references the manufacturing number and best-before date. While this complies with the legal requirements, it does not make individual identification and traceability of discrete products possible.
Individual marking of every single product item will be playing an increasingly important role for industry and consumers in the future. In serialisation, the conventional classification or type designation of a product is complemented with item-unique overt or encrypted numbering. Products of a particular order or batch are no longer provided with the same code, but with a unique identifier.
Serialisation offers opportunities to the food retail and wholesale trade sector and performs a wide range of tasks: from controlling internal logistics processes, monitoring of distribution chains, through to offering product-specific value-added services. All the relevant information, such as the history of quality inspections, is summarised in a digital file. Purchase orders, deliveries and responses, for instance in the case of recalls, can be handled quickly and reliably. Legislators and industry associations support the trend towards using serialised identifiers in the form of standardised codes. Standards promote the utilisation of common language conventions, and facilitate industry-wide communication and automation of processes.
A practical example
An example of serialisation in the food sector is beef labelling, which has been subject to statutory regulation in Germany since 2002. It is based on a system of provisions to ensure the origin and traceability of beef and must be complied with in addition to the general regulations of food law and food labelling. This results in transparency regarding the origin of beef – the intent is to make beef traceable from the sales counter across all the marketing and production stages, all the way back to a group of animals. The mandatory information has to be provided by all market players at each level of the marketing chain. This is made possible by a national electronic database for the registration of cattle as part of the origin and information system.
Track & trace plus counterfeiting protection
Serialisation simplifies many processes and makes it possible to trace the route a product has taken. But beware of misconceptions: item-unique numbering does not ensure that the item in your hands is an original product. Only in combination with authenticity features can a system be comprehensively protected against fraud, misuse and counterfeiting. Serialisation alone hardly offers protection, as it is easy to copy and fake.
Particularly in the case of foods it makes sense to use an authentication system that enables consumers to verify the authenticity of products themselves. Therefore, more and more products are provided with variable markings in order to make it possible for a wide range of users to authenticate them and to additional information. A “static” feature such as a hologram or customer logo – printed with the help of security ink – is authenticated by clear visual comparison. Variable anti-counterfeiting features, such as security paper with coloured fibres, printed random patterns, pixels or air bubbles cast in synthetic resin authenticate each individual code via a database query. Variable information, though, is typically checked online via a database. Particularly in consumer communications, this opens up most diverse and most promising opportunities for brand owners to offer specific product information tailored to target groups, consumer tips or individual advertising. However, track and trace processes should be carefully planned with respect to specific data protection and data security aspects. Who needs what information when, and what information is confidential or publicly accessible, should be precisely defined.
Authentication by means of security features
Anti-counterfeiting features may be visible, hidden or digitised, depending on the target group that is intended to perform the authentication. However, this results in highly complex security labels to put a stop to counterfeiters. Overt features such as holograms or security colour-shifting inks enable fast authentication without the use of tools. Due to the risk of imitation by professional counterfeiters, a combination with additional covert and digital technologies is recommended.
Covert features for authenticity protection are only made visible by tools such as special readers or test pens. In this case, high-security printing is primarily used. Available options include the incorporation of odourless and colourless taggants into the ink, integration of micro-particles or a synthetically generated DNA code.
Digital security features use computer-generated and encrypted encodings as human-readable numbers, 2D codes or special random patterns. Ideally, the marking combines machine-readable codes and authenticity features. One of the available options to achieve this is the BitSecure copying protection technology, which is based on a digital random pattern and read by means of handheld scanners or the camera function of smartphones.