AgResearch is developing a method of giving New Zealand exports a “unique fingerprint” that scientifically proves their provenance and could be used to deter supply-chain fraud. 

The technology is so accurate that it can differentiate New Zealand, English and Welsh lamb using a measurement that only takes a few seconds. It can also detect what feed – such as grain, grass or chicory - a carcass was reared on, an increasingly important trait driving consumer spending.

Dr Alastair Ross said the new rapid evaporative ionisation mass spectrometer (REIMS) machine being used at AgResearch’s Lincoln campus detects the “molecular phenotype” of a sample, a unique “fingerprint” made up of molecules resulting from the interaction of genes and the environment. This measurement, which previously took over an hour of lab work, can now be done in seconds on samples of meat, milk, plants and wine.

Alastair said that one of the potentials of the REIMS instrument is that it can produce detailed data that could be used for authentication, including incorporation into Blockchains so that there is chemical as well as digital traceability to prevent food fraud.

“Making sure we have the robust data on provenance and quality has the potential to save New Zealand millions of dollars through early detection of quality problems and prevention of false labelling.

“We’re also finding that we can link the fingerprint to other factors such as consumer liking so in the future it can be possible to ensure that New Zealand agricultural products are not only guaranteed in terms of provenance and quality, but also will go to the market which best matches their desired flavour profile.

“This type of concept is heading toward a future where you could, for example, scan a glass of milk with your mobile device to not only find out where, when and how it was produced but also whether that milk fits your taste profile. We think this will be a major opportunity for the New Zealand food sector where worldwide supply chains are coming under increasing scrutiny and consumers are increasingly engaged in what they eat.”

The REIMS instrument vaporises products using an electronic surgical knife and measures the resulting vapour using a mass spectrometer. The REIMS is expensive and has to be based in a laboratory. But advances in technology mean that simpler instruments using similar concepts are becoming more affordable and portable. REIMS can develop the molecular models that are then tested in practice using more affordable technology, to the point the technology will one day become common in an abattoir, dairy processing plant, or on-farm.

Alastair explained: “Genetic improvements have made a major difference to the sector for improved production and disease resistance. Now we want to enable selection to be based on both genetics and environmental factors, to use a systems approach, to reach the next level of improvements in production, quality and sustainability. Ultimately, we’re aiming to develop a tool that we can take to a farm or an abattoir that will detect what sheep is the most adaptable to suit the flavour preference profile of a specific market. In the case of meat for example, with a simple measurement taken on an animal on-farm, we’d be able to get a good estimate of what animals are good for the European market, what are good for the Chinese market, and what is good for dog tucker.”

Alastair said the technology could be adapted to many other agricultural applications such as diagnosis of disease. “This technology has huge ramifications for animal welfare too.”

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