Yesterday I attended the GoTrace Symposium in Wellington, which was all about traceability, country of origin labelling, anti-counterfeiting and the like. It was a really interesting day, and was attended by the likes of Zespri, Wools of NZ, NZ Merino, Comvita (Manuka Honey), The Wine Industry etc., that have a vested interest in protecting their brand against rip-offs (mainly in Asia). There were some staggering figures shown throughout the day, including that the World Trade Organisation estimates that about 5-7 % of world trade is in counterfeit goods. That equates to about $520 Billion!
The conference looked at a number of ways to track goods to their origin, which was mainly done through trace metal analysis or isotopic testing. Basically, if a cow grows up eating grass in the North Island, the resultant steak will have a different trace metal or isotopic 'signature' to one that has been raised in the South Island. This is due to the different rainfall and geology in the regions. Scientists throughout the world have been working hard to produce huge databases so that they can test and match a wine, for example, to the vineyard the grapes were grown on, thus determining if it is a fake or not. This can be done with incredible accuracy, down to a few hundred metres in certain instances!
Counterfeit wines are a problem, but counterfeit drugs are a BIG problem. Not so much in NZ because our supply sources are very secure, but particularly in poorer countries. A group from GNS Science analyzed a number of malaria pills supposedly made by Guilin Pharmaceuticals (a legitimate company) in China, and found that in Laos, 88 % of the pills claiming to be from GPC were counterfeit. Because the particular malaria pills were bitter in taste, the counterfeiters tried to make their rip-offs bitter by adding various things such as floor cleaners or solvents. Because of this work, a few of the illegal supply chains were able to be shut down. Perhaps one way to stop this activity in the region is by donating genuine malaria pills (they are so cheap anyway), so that the incentive for the counterfeiters to counterfeit in the first place is removed. However, this was only one brand of malaria pill, and one disease in a list of many. Quite scary really.
Counterfeiting will always be a problem and so the work that is being done by many of the attendees is important not only for the economic livelihood of small exporting countries like ours, but also for the livelihood of many people in lesser developed nations that are being subjected to some horrendous practices at the hands of a few sick individuals.
Thanks to the organisers for a great day!