Friday, December 05, 2008

URBAN MYTH: Barcodes reveal country of origin

I'm not sure why anyone would promulgate something as complex, yet incorrect, as a guide to deciphering a UPC code to determine which country the food came from. Nevertheless, an email has been circulating among concerned shoppers, along these lines:

Fw: China and Taiwan bar codes

Dear Friends,

If you want to avoid buying China imported food... you will need to know how to read the bar code on the products to see where they are actually coming from...

If the bar code starts from : 690 or 691 or 692 they are from China
If the bar code starts from : 471 they are from Taiwan
If the bar code starts from : 45 or 49 they are from Japan
If the bar code starts from : 489 they are from Hong Kong

Please be aware that the Melamine case is expanding, not only some of the mike (sic) contains Melamine, even some candy and chocolate are no good to eat now... even melamine is use in ham and hamburgers or some vegetarian food. Please do beware at this moment for your own health.

The email is misleading, for two reasons (thanks to David Emery):

  1. There's more than one kind of bar code in use around the world. UPC bar codes, the type most commonly used in the United States, do not typically contain a country identifier. A different type of bar code known as EAN-13 does contain a country identifier, but it's more commonly used in Europe and other countries outside the U.S.
  2. Even in the case of EAN-13 bar codes, the digits associated with country of origin don't necessarily specify where the product was manufactured, but rather where the bar code itself was registered. So, for example, a product manufactured in China and sold in France could have an EAN-13 bar code identifying it as a French product.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Got Milk? Got eggs? Lost face.

The melamine scandal in Chinese agribusiness refuses to die down. Not only has the echo of contaminated milk continued to reverberate around the world through chocolate, Koala March cookies, and infant formula - but now eggs are showing up with high levels of melamine contamination. Melamine was banned in China for animal feed only in 2007 - but is clearly still being used illegally. The experts warn us not to panic ... a child would have to eat two dozen eggs to get melamine poisoning ... but this misses the point. It's a case of lost trust and lost face. What other contaminants are being used in food manufacture, that are going undetected?

Just as the banking industry relies on trust (and we discovered what happens when that evaporates) so does agribusiness. We assume that the government is providing oversight to make sure that our foreign and domestic food suppliers are playing by the rules - and those rules are keeping us safe from harmful chemicals. Even if melamine was the ONLY chemical that Chinese farmer adulterated their product with, it destroys the delicate web of trust that holds up our belief in the whole system.

We believe that empowered consumers can provide an additional check and balance. Ignorance is bliss only as long as we're all healthy.

Michael Pollan (the next administration's food safety tsar?) outlined the future perfectly in a recent New York Times Magazine editorial:

The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced: in the case of crops, images of the farm and lists of agrochemicals used in its production; in the case of meat and dairy, descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen, as well as live video feeds of the CAFO where they live and, yes, the slaughterhouse where they die. The very length and complexity of the modern food chain breeds a culture of ignorance and indifference among eaters. Shortening the food chain is one way to create more conscious consumers, but deploying technology to pierce the veil is another.

Sound familiar? Watch
this space...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Trust Them. Customers Can Handle It.

There's been a couple of reports (here and here) published recently exploring the role transparency plays when consumers choose a product. The received wisdom is that a consumer spends 2.6seconds deciding whether to buy a typical consumer packaged good - so a brand's reputation needs to shortcut the decision making process.

Transparency is generally thought to engender greater trust and confidence in the brand, and brand reputation is the most powerful influencer of buying decisions.

Recent food safety scares (salmonella, Ecoli) and scandals (melamine) have only increased consumers' desire to know that their products are safe, and where they come from. In addition to the inexorable rise of locavores, sustainable and organic buyers, and COOL sleuths. What's interesting about the prevailing wisdom among many food execs, apparently, is that they are reluctant to share information with consumers, in case they don't understand it.

Many of the executives surveyed [in the Colman Brohan Davis report] still questioned the near-term value of deploying information to fully empower consumer decision-making.
What can we be sure of? The consumer of the future will have access to unimaginable amounts of information at their fingertips (10 years ago - could we imagine Google?) through devices we can only dream of (an iPhone which reads barcodes and has great battery life). It follows that brands will want to be the authoritative sources of information about their products ... or someone else will be.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Don't Hold Your Breath

Gov. Swarzenegger has signed into a law a requirement that pharmaceuticals sold in California are serialized and tracked. This should finally help tackle the problem of counterfeit, re-dated, diverted or otherwise dubious drugs.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush out to buy pharmaceuticals in total confidence, take a deep breath:

the deadline for compliance is in seven years.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

More Hot Chips

We've discussed in this blog several times about the threat posed by counterfeit semiconductors. Today's Business Week ran a long article about the incredible way fake chips get into US defense equipment. The Pentagon's policy of buying hard-to-find spares from the cheapest sources and from small businesses creates a gigantic crack for fakes to leak through.

Many of these parts are old, and are impossible for buyers to authenticate. Fakers sand off the original markings, and replace with bogus text.

The semiconductor industry is currently working on a method to uniquely identify semiconductors with an encrypted identifier (called SEMI T20) - which will allow buyers to verify authenticity. This won't help authenticate 20 year old devices - but it could prevent the problem 20 years from now.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cry Foul Over Spoiled Milk

As predicted in our previous entry, the melamine-in-Chines-milk scandal continues to grow - and it's too early to say the problem is behind us. The initial reaction of "don't worry, Chinese dairy products can't be sold in the US" has now been replaced with "non dairy creamer recalled in US". It also appears that Chinese dairy ingredients, blended into other food components, can be a pathway for contaminated products to get into cookies, sauces, and packets of dried pizza cheese around the world.

There are still a lot of questions unresolved.

1. The Chinese government ordered a crackdown on food adulteration after the pet food poisonings, and created a new agency to oversee testing. In a classic case of bureaucratic incompetence, however, Sanlu and 21 other companies considered in good standing were exempt from inspections by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
2. How many dairy farmers adulterated their products this way? How did they discover the adding melamine method, and did they know of the consequences of adding melamine?
3. How can consumers know whether their products contain potentially contaminated products?
4. What is China going to do to rebuild trust in its products - trust that is currently battered and shredded? Adding regulation and reactive testing are unlikely to be sufficient.

Expect more revelations before the week is out.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yet More Bad Milk

The pernicious nature of food contamination is such that it's only over when it's over. Every headline about the melamine contamination of dairy products in China increases the count of children affected. First it was 1,000, then 6,000. Yesterday it was 12,900, now it's 50,000.

However, this is more than just the unpredictable nature of contamination. The counterfeit milk (it was diluted and then treated with melamine to fool protein tests) has affected 22 brands, not just one as originally believed - and shattered China's efforts to create a trustworthy food supply. The recall was late and sluggish.
The Sanlu company, China’s largest producer of powdered baby formula, received complaints months ago about suspected problems, but the company waited until Aug. 2 to tell local authorities, who waited until Sept. 9 to tell provincial authorities, the provincial authorities said. Sanlu finally recalled 700 tons of the formula on Sept. 11.

One can only wonder why testing for melamine is not a standard practice for manufacturers receiving milk - apparently it takes only minutes. Brands could then provide independent testing certification, and make the information available to consumers to verify. Without this sort of transparency, trust will be tough to rebuild.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Adulterated Baby Formula Haunts China's Children Again

Once again, tainted infant formula has shown up in China, killing at least two babies and sickening at least 1,200 more. This time melamine was been added to milk powder to disguise the fact that it had been watered down. (The melamine fools the tests done to check the formula's nitrogen content - but is highly toxic and causes severe kidney damage). A similar scam killed thousands of American pets, after melamine was substituted for a pet food ingredient (gluten) from China.

Back in 2004, thirteen babies died of malnutrition and almost 200 were hospitalized in eastern China's Anhui province after being fed substandard milk. The counterfeit milk powder, coincidentally the same Sanlu brand as affected in this recent scandal, contained no nutrition, causing infants' heads to swell while their bodies starved, according to Chinese media reports then.

A staggering proportion of food ingredients are imported from China. For example, China manufactures 90% of the world's vitamin C. Chinese pharmaceutical companies also dominate much of the world market in the production of antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes and primary amino acids. China makes 70% of the world's penicillin, 50% of its aspirin and 35% of its acetaminophen (often sold under the brand name Tylenol), as well as the bulk of vitamins A, B12 and E. [see here for reference]

The majority of these factories meet global safety standards - but many at the bottom certainly do not. While country of origin labeling is finally being mandated in certain foods (albeit, not processed food - which often contain added vitamins) ... the factory of origin is not.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Waiter! There's a tilapia in my tuna

Using a simple DNA fingerprinting test, a couple of students have been able to determine that a lot of fish-eaters are having the scales pulled over their eyes. This report in today's New York Times described how the two sent samples of fish from restaurants and stores in New York to a lab for DNA testing.

They found that one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled. A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.

Turns out that counterfeiting is not limited to semiconductors, consumer electronics, pharmaceuticals, toys, tobacco, wine, apparel, golf clubs, luxury goods, auto parts, aircraft spares, and cosmetics after all!

Perhaps in the future restaurateurs and retailers will have to prove to their clientele that their sushi is not fishy!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Ersatz Medicine Shoppe

The FDA has released a warning about counterfeit drugs at a couple of The Medicine Shoppe pharmacies in Baltimore.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Is the Produce Industry Having an Identity Crisis?

Although I've tracked it very closely, I've up until now hesitated to blog about the Salmonella Saintpaul produce crisis for one reason: the culprit keeps changing.

Here's a simplified (and highly editorialized) chronology:

  • People start getting sick from a rare form of Salmonella, local health sleuths hypothesize that tomatoes linked all the victims (they ate salsa? tomatoes have carried Salmonella before)
  • the FDA issues a warning: don't eat Roma or Round tomatoes, on-the-vine and cherry are okay!
  • widespread consumer panic ensues. What's a Roma? Aren't all tomatoes round? What's that in my Caprese salad?
  • the FDA quickly narrows the crisis to Roma or Red tomatoes grown in Florida and Mexico, because only those regions were growing at the time... meanwhile the sickened count grows.
  • Wait a minute. Who knows where their tomatoes were grown? Widespread panic (and tomato avoidance) continues
  • The FDA posts (somewhere) a list of states that are 'cleared' ... okay, but I still don't know where my tomatoes came from. More hospital cases.
  • By now the hullaballoo from the tomato industry is deafening. No contaminated tomatoes can be found and the sickness toll creeps higher. What about tortillas? What about peppers? Maybe it was cilantro in the salsa?
  • Suddenly Jalapenos are under suspicion
  • Then: a miracle! A lone Jalapeno pepper is found in a Texas processing plant with the Salmonella Saintpaul fingerprint (CSI: produce?). But no-one's saying where it was grown. it was the peppers after all!
  • Maybe
  • Then, another breakthrough... the guilty jalapeno pepper is traced to a farm in Mexico. US industry breathes an exhausted sigh of relief, the origin is finally identified.
  • But wait. Hold on. It's serrano peppers! the Salmonella strain is found in the irrigation water in a Serrano pepper farm in a different state in Mexico. So there were 2 culprits! (Maybe they were working together?)
  • Hold the presses again ... the Mexican growers shout. The water in that water tank hasn't been used for 2 months.

At this point everyone is either sick or tired, or both. This whodunnit is more twisted than an Agatha Chritie play.

It certainly looks like tomatoes got an unfair rap. They (probably) never made anyone sick, and the industry lost a lot of money while consumers recoiled from potentially 'killer tomatoes'. It made for great headlines - but there wasn't more than a hypothesis. Panic leapt from one produce category to another with every announcement. Regulation is likely. Was it the serrano, or the jalapeno? Maybe they both went through a processing facility that somehow cross contaminated them? Or maybe Saintpaul is actually quite common ... and we're finding it because we're looking for it?

Even without the answer, what can we learn from this dreadful debacle?
  1. It's impossible right now for consumers to know where their produce comes from. So they stop buying it all together until the problem goes away. Identity would be a good thing.
  2. The industry demonstrated that tracing a product to its point of origin is not impossible ... but it's hard work, and you wouldn't want to do it every day if you're a grower or processor. If it was instantaneous and effortless, that would be a good thing too.
  3. Other industries have proven that it is perfectly possible to trace products quickly and accurately - without the government telling them to do it. Take the semiconductor industry. End customers (like Dell or Toyota) can trace a defective chip back to the exact wafer it came from. Why the difference? Because the customers demanded it - it made sense for their business, and they have the power to demand it.
  4. Other industries have also taught us that more government regulation on traceability is not necessarily effective either. The FDA and State Board of Pharmacies have been trying to force RFID-based ePedigree on the pharmaceutical industry. So far without success.
  5. In spite of the millions of dollars growers and processors have invested in state-of-the-art clean facilities and HACCP practices in the US and Mexico - consumers are afraid, and in the dark. Which is the brand of tomatoes we all trust to be safe? (or put another way, who is the Volvo of produce?) Where is the "good housekeeping seal of approval" that tells consumers - these guys are traceable, and they do everything by the book?
And finally this nugget. Saint Paul is the patron saint of journalists. Too ironic, no?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From whence cometh my watermelons?

An article in The Packer today pointed the way to the future of fresh produce ... item-level traceability. Soon, consumers will be able to punch a code into a website or their cell phones and find out whence their melons came, and whether they're affected by a food safety issue. Of course, this also gives the brand owner an opportunity to share their food safety and growing practices in a rich and accessible way.

Watch this space. This is just the thin edge of the wedge. So to speak.

(Disclosure: the item-level traceability coding solution is supplied by YottaMark)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fake Chips Are Heating Up

Okay, bad pun. Of course, overheating is only one of the threats from counterfeit semiconductors. Fraud in electronics includes: counterfeiting, re-marking, 'pulled' devices of dubious integrity, warranty fraud, FRU fraud, and diverting/gray parts. Statistics are notoriously hard to come by, and in this blog we've highlighted numerous instances (see our Feb 22 blog, for example). Here's some more anecdotal data:

  • One of every 10 tech products sold is counterfeit, leading to an estimate of a direct loss over $100 billion a year. Direct losses include recalls, increased warranties, rework.
  • High-tech products account for four of the top ten border seizures, according to U.S. Customs.
  • Last year, the U.S. and European customs officers seized more than 360,000 fake computer chips in a joint operation. Under “Operation Infrastructure,” the fake goods seized carried more than 40 different trademarks.
  • A $2 fake part leads to losses of $20 if detected at the manufacturing board level. It costs $200 if detected in the market.
  • KMPG will release a white paper in May that estimates the profits lost due to the gray market. It will be posted here, along with KPMG's previous white paper.
This blog entry on VentureBeat by Dean Takahashi, the former Tech Talk Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, frames it nicely: "Electronics counterfeiting has hit an epidemic level. Surely, there have to be opportunities for start-ups in fighting this problem."

A recent article in Purchasing magazine found that 42% of procurement professionals felt counterfeiting was now a 'serious problem'.

YottaMark has been working on the SIA and SEMI anticounterfeiting task force to establish an industry standard for detecting fake components. The topic will be covered in a session at this year's Semicon West in San Francisco in July.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Oh No! Fake OMO!

We've been talking about the trend for counterfeiters to target ordinary branded consumer goods - not just luxury items. This news article from Australia is a great example: counterfeit washing powder.

The general counsel for Unilever, Mary Weir, said the Omo case was representative of a rise in the number of counterfeit consumer products entering Australia.

A recent trademark conference in Sydney, highlighted examples of the rise in fake consumer goods and foods and their risks:

■ Sunglasses made of cheap plastic without the graduated lens to prevent optical damage, causing headaches and blurred vision when worn.

■ Fragrances made with acetone which not only stains clothing but can cause skin allergies and asthma attacks.

■ Toys made with unsafe plastics, rubber, paints, glues, dyes and loosely fitted parts.

■ Clothing. About eight million counterfeit clothing items are brought into Australia annually, costing the local fashion industry $1 billion a year.

■ Food. Battery-farmed eggs labeled as free-range, basmati rice bags diluted with inferior varieties, and false claims on the organic status of fruit, vegetables and meats.

■ Electrical goods. Small appliances that do not comply with Australian standards and which short-circuit, leading to electrical hazards in the home.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Knocking Off Chips

Even 'though manufacturing integrated circuits (ICs) is one of the most costly and complex processes known to man ... chips are still susceptible to counterfeiting. Sometimes devices are painstakingly reverse engineered, other times these are simply cheap devices re-marked to make them look like expensive ones.

EU and U.S. senior officials said on Friday they would crack down on counterfeiting of computer components after they seized over 360,000 fake items in just two weeks in a joint operation at the end of last year. ICs and computer components of over 40 trademarks including Intel, Cisco and Philips, worth more than $1.3 billion, were seized during the operation, the officials said.

All kinds of devices are affected - military spec, consumer electronics, end-of-life products, simple components, complex ICs, assemblies (like Network Interface Cards), and devices (such as phones and routers).

SEMI, the Semiconductor Industry's standards body is developing a global standard to detect and deter counterfeit product. Contact us to find out more about how this will work.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Latest Hall of Shame

The German Plagiarius Awards call attention to the most flagrant fakes product imitations and raise awareness about the dangers of piracy. In addition to look-a-likes of chairs and salt & pepper shakers, were medical devices, pens, children's toys, and faucets with 200% too much lead in them. This is a wake-up call to those manufacturers who think they're too small, or their products are too complex, to attract counterfeiters.

Perhaps the US Chamber of Commerce, as part of its CACP activities, should do the same?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fake Pesticides and Fertilizers

For farmers in poor countries, often their biggest outlay is for pesticides and fertilizers. A recent report from the I
ndonesian Anti-Counterfeiting Society (MIAP) and CropLife Indonesia found that up to around 20 percent of the 1,500 registered pesticide brands fell victim to counterfeiting last year. Not only do the cheaper fake pesticides and fertilizers not deliver the benefits expected - leading to failed harvests - but they can also actually lead the farmers to far greater financial losses, as their produce can contain excessive amounts of pesticide residue ... making them unsaleable.