Edible Markers

The Holy Grail in agricultural crisis quality management is to have a technology that provides authentication and traceability “in situ” or “in contact” with the food product that marks product origination. This requires having “fit for human consumption” content-relevant information traceability technology that can be added to the food product as well as the packaging materials for “self-authentication.”

In its simplest form, for instance, a two-dimensional package bar code is pre-programmed to identify the content-relevant information contained within a food grade microtag that is co-processed with the food product. Self-authentication packaging is a supply chain security method that provides the inspector with an immediate cross-reference between package information and security of contents.

What's in the Package?

As a food issue, it is not enough to know that the packaging is “authentic” or whether the shipment is in route or at its intended destination and in a warehouse. We also must be certain that the content in the package is the real thing. Brand owners should be able to prove that their branded product is what is in the package to diminish the risk of counterfeited, look-alike, or knocked-off brands that lead to liability.

Customs statistics show that food counterfeiting and piracy continue to be a growing threat in Europe. The same can be said for the US, where gray and black market transactions involve poultry, shellfish, Atlantic salmon, eggs, and animal feeds. It is this deliberate market assault that has turned food security into food defense.

Fraudulent brand intent is counterfeiting. The recent pet food and toothpaste recalls remind us all of the supply chain's vulnerability. Melamine was used to give a false protein report while ethylene glycol was substituted for glycerol. So is it possible anti-counterfeit technology can be used as a direct food additive to mitigate some of these risks?

New Technology

A covert edible marker for food chain security and defense strategy has been developed. The microscopic edible markers or microtags can be used as a direct food additive for finished food goods authentication. Accordingly, markers are used to verify brand authenticity but also can be useful in supply chain component verification.

These microtag markers comprise GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) materials and approximate a disc-like structure that is 100 microns in diameter (the diameter of a human hair) by 20 microns in thickness. One pound of markers contains billions of microtags. Marking does not require a high concentration of markers to secure the item. Consider taggants as micron-sized edible ID markers.

Marker applications may include processed foods, animal feeds, crop identification, and over-the-counter drug and on-tablet pharmaceutical authentication. Researchers also are considering these markers for animal identification and diagnostics in food metabolism studies. Taggants can be added directly into animal feeds, offering the feed manufacturer a security opportunity. Additionally, taggants can be designed to survive the gut tract providing a forensic individual animal identification method in the distribution chain.

Indicia Information

The unique feature of the marker is that it bares indicia. Indicia is content-relevant information like a product name, batch code, brand logo, or any other important identifying feature chosen by the brand owner. The entire area of the face of the disc can be considered the brand owner's “design space.” The choice and design of indicia are nearly endless. If it is easier to understand, think of the microtag as a 100-micron diameter cookie with written information or design on its surface that can be incorporated into the food product. Microtag design can be simple or complex based on the brand owner's interests.


Microtags have been used to combat counterfeiting since ancient Egypt. Microtags are a covert anti-counterfeit technology because their microscopic size renders them invisible to the unaided human eye. The human eye cannot resolve images less than 100 microns, so while the tag is there, your eye cannot see it or the indicia.

The microtag markers are a covert crossover technology commonly used in anti-counterfeit brand management. All markers per batch are identical in their chosen feature. Brand owners can change the feature when compromise is suspected. This is referred to as a “migration path” to stay ahead of the bad guys.

A Different Kind of Option

Finding the right security technology for food chain defense depends on what you expect to mitigate. It helps to know what you expect to find! Adulteration, contamination, and “counterfeiting” all present different options to mitigate the risks associated with food chain security and defense.

If location and volume control is important, then a track and trace technology like RFID is an option. If package authenticity and inventory control are desired, then overt technologies like holograms, security labels, and bar codes are an option. If contamination and adulteration are the issues, then you must know for what you are looking.

All technologies are constrained in some way. There is no single solution to brand protection. The brand owner decides the level of risk mitigation based on the chosen technology. ARmark markers are a different kind of option. Technologies that provide “in-contact” authentication of the end-use product will help not only to shape compliance with the Bioterrorist Act but will provide brand owners with a strong security option to mitigate the upstream risk of adulteration, gray market dilution, and counterfeit components.

Peter D. Gabriele is technical director for ARmark Authentication Technologies and holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree in biochemistry from the Univ. of Hartford. He also earned a graduate degree in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins Univ. Gabriele is a past recipient of the Roon Foundation Award and the Dahlquist Award. Contact him at 717-227-5922, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Andrew T. Hogan is a product development chemist for ARmark and holds a bachelor's degree in polymer science from the Univ. of Southern Mississippi. He has more than eight years of product development experience, including six years in p-s adhesive formulation development and three years of polymer development for p-s adhesives. Contact him at 717-227-3243, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Supplier Infot

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The views and opinions expressed in Technical Reports are those of the author(s), not those of the editors of PFFC. Please address comments to author(s).

It's a Different Time

Not too long ago it was called “food safety”; today it is called “food defense.” Food chain security is vital to this country. The Bioterrorist Act of 2002 and Homeland Security Act of 2002 stipulate protective action in the event of deliberate adulteration of animal and human food and agricultural and pharmaceutical products. The acts require brand owners and manufacturers to manage and verify supply chain violations in the event of a deliberate breach. Import border protection is also an issue covered by these laws.

The human and pet food industries both have experienced problems that led to deaths within each market sector. Packaging plays an import sentry role when a crisis arises. Inspectors often are inundated with packaged food samples in the attempt to find the culprit. The spinach scare of 2006 and the pet food scare of 2007 are clear examples of how important it is to verify the origin of contents.

More recently the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has formalized its Food Protection Plan (November 2007). The core elements of this plan involve prevention, intervention, and response.

Prevention involves building in safety processes from the start. Intervention includes intervening when risks are identified and verifying prevention. Response criteria are intended to expedite a resolution to the problem to stabilize the economic impact and consumer confidence from residual damage. Within these elements are four crosscutting principles: reducing risk through product life cycle; identifying resources to reduce risk; mitigating both intentional and unintentional contamination; and using science and modern technology to resolve issues.

US “across the board” compliance with these acts and plans still is not thoroughly implemented. There are 30 principal laws administered by 15 separate agencies. And there is a new Food Safety bill now under consideration to define oversight responsibility for many of these agencies. Nevertheless, the real search is for a versatile solution to the food defense problem.

Change is painful. Regrettably, there are difficulties and confusion understanding these laws. Moreover, there are gaps in state-of-the-art food chain security that limit traceability to external packaging technology rather than the food content itself. Optional technologies like authentication and traceability may be one of the more important science and technology options available to enable intervention in a food defense response. Integrating authentication technologies at a level that is in direct contact with food is one option to get closer to tracing problems upstream.

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