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Lab Test

by msecadm4921

It is hard to put a value on the economic losses suffered by manufacturers of consumer goods as a result of criminal activity, writes Ellen Norman, Projects Manager, Investigative Analysis, RSSL.

Given the vulnerabilities at every turn including theft, fraud, counterfeit, blackmail and so on, all estimates are necessarily inaccurate. Counterfeit products undoubtedly cause the biggest losses to business and present the biggest danger to the public. The World Health Organisation has found that in more than half of cases, ‘medicines’ purchased over the internet from unregistered ‘pharmacy’ websites are indeed counterfeit, and therefore contain the wrong dose, and often no dose, of the drug the patient needs.
Food, drink and cosmetics are also vulnerable, as indeed are electronic goods and DVDs. But whereas a counterfeit DVD could, at worst, be awful to watch, a counterfeit food could cause actual harm. Bootleg cosmetics, such as toothpaste (containing diethylene glycol instead of glycerol), have caused many deaths in developing countries.

Some market analysts note that in difficult financial times counterfeits gain market share, as consumers switch from known brands to less familiar brands, or look for bargain versions of their ‘trusted’ brand-name products. In both cases, the tell-tale signs of the counterfeit packaging go unnoticed as consumers look more closely at price than any other aspect of the package before making their purchase.

Buyer beware

It is easy to criticise the consumers that fall for the counterfeit product, when it might seem obvious that when a bargain is ‘too good to be true’ then it probably isn’t true. But that is to under-estimate the sophistication of the modern counterfeiter, especially when it comes to copying packaging. Even brand managers sometimes have difficulty in telling their own product from the fake based on packaging alone. So too with the actual product, at least in terms of appearance. Counterfeiters often make a good job of matching the look of a product even if the actual content is far from genuine.
Moreover, it is worth noting that industry insiders are not at all immune from buying a fake. There are myriad examples within the food and drink sector of adulterated and fake ingredients being traded and incorporated into legitimate products. Such fakes may not be counterfeit as such, but the misrepresentation or adulteration of product can represent a serious threat to business and consumers.

Recent major examples of adulteration include the cases of melamine in milk (added by unscrupulous processors to boost the apparent protein content of milk) and Sudan Red in spice (added to boost the visual quality and, by implication, the actual quality of chilli powder). In both cases, millions of tonnes of food products were eventually withdrawn from sale because they were contaminated with these adulterated ingredients.

Laboratory help

Modern laboratory techniques make it possible to specify and determine the quality, purity and authenticity of most ingredients. Therefore, routine testing is part of the standard quality control practices for the majority of manufacturers of food, drinks, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, toiletries or any other consumable product. Routine testing is appropriate, of course, for addressing known issues eg presence of heavy metals, presence of genetically modified ingredients, use of illegal colours and so on. However, those responsible for business security must also prepare for the unknown and unexpected. Issues, such as the melamine case cited above, generally come from out of the blue. No-one could seriously have predicted that a chemical used in the fabrication of plastics would be added to milk, and thereby damage the businesses of food and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
That being the case, security managers must be able to respond quickly when a new issue arises and will benefit from having access to expert laboratories able to help. Such help usually comes as expertise in developing methods that can answer questions that may never have been asked before. Referring back to melamine, prior to the crisis there were no routine methods to test for the presence of melamine in every kind of food. These methods had to be developed and validated once the issue came to light, and time was of the essence.

Countering the counterfeits

Just as the most serious cases of ingredient adulteration are unexpected, so too, generally, are incidents of counterfeiting. However, whereas it may be enough to know that adulteration of an ingredient has been detected in order for supplies to be rejected, with counterfeits, it is often useful to make a more detailed investigation. All information that can be gathered about the counterfeit might be useful in stemming its supply, and ultimately, in pursuing a prosecution. To this end, the laboratory has a key role to play in providing data, and also in maintaining the chain of evidence and interpreting or reporting findings in a way that aids an investigation and supports potential prosecutions. So rather than merely confirming that the inks used on counterfeit packaging do not exactly match those of the genuine product, or that a ‘pharmaceutical’ lacks the active ingredient, it may, on occasion be possible to learn something more.

For example, in one case investigated by RSSL’s Emergency Response Service (ERS) we characterised the glue used in the packaging of a variety of suspected counterfeits seized from different retail outlets. The components in the packages were not all identical, and in fact fell into two distinct groups. Later seizures from manufacturing facilities in Turkey and China were analysed using the same techniques. One population of counterfeits was shown to be from the Chinese site and the other from the Turkish site. This brand was unlucky enough, to give two sets of counterfeiters enough profit to make it worth their while going into business. In another example a range of techniques was used to get a full characterisation of the components in a counterfeit soft drink. This analysis was not so much about catching the counterfeiter but about ensuring those consumers who bought the counterfeit were not at risk. In such cases a risk assessment needs to be carried out, with an understanding of the ingredients and what kinds of hazards are present from the use of ingredients from an uncontrolled supply chain.

Individual acts

Of course, not all serious crimes are committed by organised and well-resourced counterfeiters. Manufacturers are also vulnerable to the blackmail of individuals acting alone, usually by threatening or actually carrying out some form of product tampering. Thankfully, the majority of such incidents are relatively small scale, involving ‘modest’ attempts at securing compensation, rather than large-scale extortion. That said, an individual with an eye for publicity can do much to damage the reputation of a food and drink manufacturer if their claim of finding something awful in a food product attracts the attention of the national media. With extortion attempts, it is often the threat of tampering, rather than the physical act that is the first sign of a problem. Some threats can be readily dismissed as being technically unfeasible, whereas others need to be taken much more seriously. A good laboratory will be able to distinguish between the two. With compensation claims, the consumer will usually present the offending item to the manufacturer, and it is always worth investigating these complaints. After all, what appears to be a one-off complaint may only be the first case that indicates a genuine problem and highlights a manufacturing issue that needs to be addressed. Equally, it may be a hoax, perpetrated by the consumer in pursuit of significant financial compensation or publicity. Only by a thorough investigation can the hoax, or the honest mistake, or the legitimate complaint be differentiated from one another. Again, the quality of the laboratory analysis is fundamental to getting the right answers, and again, some of these investigations may require new methods to be developed. Even for a laboratory like RSSL, whose ERS has investigated more than 15,000 product emergencies over the last 20 years, there are occasions when something new crops up.

That said, most factory-borne contamination incidents involve a common list of offending chemicals or foreign bodies. As soon as the nature of the problem is properly understood, informed decisions can be made about how best to deal with the incident. As with counterfeit investigations, it is important for the scientists to remember that the investigation may form part of criminal proceedings, and where possible to use simple and non-destructive techniques to reach a conclusion. The laboratory must have strict procedures in place to preserve a chain of evidence for any samples tested. It must also report results in an easily accessible way for the non-scientist requirement, and increasingly, acting as an expert witness forms part of the scientist’s remit. It is no longer enough for the scientist to be an expert at the bench, he/she must also be an expert at the bar.


For many manufacturers, the biggest threat to business security comes not from intruders but from those who may never come close to the business premises. Counterfeiters operating from the other side of the world, or consumers operating from their own houses, may be able to wreak more damage to a business than any thief on the premises. Clearly there is little that manufacturers can do to halt the determined criminal. No amount of security cameras or surveillance equipment can spot the crime in progress. However, with the right backing from an expert laboratory security managers can at least maintain good surveillance of the adulteration/contamination issues that might affect their ingredients, and be in preparedness to investigate any counterfeiting or extortion incidents that emerge from time to time. Good information facilitates good decision making, and by providing good data about industry trends and specific incidents, a laboratory can play a key role in protecting a business.

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