Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Food fraud and counterfeit cotton: The detectives untangling the global supply chain

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Samanth Subramanian reports in the Guardian:

Five years ago, the textile giant Welspun found itself mired in a scandal that hinged on a single word: “Egyptian”. At the time, Welspun was manufacturing more than 45m metres of cotton sheets every year – enough to tie a ribbon around the Earth and still have fabric left over for a giant bow. It supplied acres of bed linen to the likes of Walmart and Target, and among the most expensive were those advertised as “100% Egyptian cotton”. For decades, cotton from Egypt has claimed a reputation for being the world’s finest, its fibres so long and silky that it can be spun into soft, luxurious cloth. In Welpsun’s label, the word “Egyptian” was a boast and a promise.

But the label couldn’t always be trusted, it turned out. In 2016, Target carried out an internal investigation that led to a startling discovery: roughly 750,000 of its Welspun “Egyptian cotton” sheets and pillowcases were made with an inferior kind of cotton that didn’t come from Egypt at all. After Target offered its customers refunds and ended its relationship with Welspun, the effects rippled through the industry. Other retailers, checking their bed linen, also found Welspun sheets falsely claiming to be Egyptian cotton. Walmart, which was sued by shoppers who had bought Welspun’s “Egyptian cotton” products, refused to stock Welspun sheets any more. A week after Target made its discoveries public, Welspun had lost more than $700m from its market value. It was cataclysmic for the company.

Blindsided, Welspun struggled to understand what had gone wrong, but working that out wasn’t easy. The cotton business is labyrinthine, and the supply chains of products – running from the source farm to the shop shelf – have grown increasingly complex. A T-shirt sold in New Delhi might be made of cotton grown in India, blended with other cotton from Australia, spun into yarn in Vietnam, woven into cloth in Turkey, sown and cut in Portugal, bought by a Norwegian company and shipped back to India – and that’s a relatively simple supply chain. For years, Welspun had been buying raw cotton, yarn and whole cloth, all claiming to be of Egyptian origin, from dozens of vendors. The source of the fiasco might have been a mistake – a mislabelled shipment of cotton yarn, perhaps – or it might have been deliberate fraud by some remote supplier. Either way, it was lost in the maze.

In the thick of its crisis, Welspun sought out a company named Oritain. Founded in 2008, in the town of Dunedin in New Zealand, Oritain is a kind of forensic detective agency – a supply-chain CSI. Its work, which takes us into the heart of modern commerce, depends upon a basic truth about our planet. The Earth is so geologically diverse that, in a location’s soil or water, the precise concentrations of elements often turns out to be unique to that region. That singular mix of elements works its way into the crops from the region as well, so that cotton grown in the south of the US has a different combination of elements compared to cotton from Egypt – each combination distinct, like a signature.

Prof Russell Frew, the geochemist who co-founded Oritain, had been studying element analysis at the University of Otago when he recognised how his research could address a major commercial problem. Fraudulent products sit on shop shelves everywhere. When they’re detected, they trigger fierce controversies, like the time in 2013, when British and Irish authorities found horse meat liberally mixed into “beef” patties. But for every headline-grabbing deception, there are countless unnoticed ones. Sugar syrup is blended into organic honey. “New Zealand lamb chops” come from Chinese feedlot animals; extra virgin olive oil is cut with cheap, inferior oil; T-shirts are stitched out of cotton grown on forced-labour farms. Labels often lie. The counterfeit food game alone is worth $49bn a year.

These deceits, Frew realised, could be sniffed out by element analysis: hence Oritain. The company’s clients include well known brands such as Primark, but also industry bodies such as Cotton USA and Meat Promotion Wales. All of them are keen to avoid nasty surprises of the kind that Welspun experienced, the kind that can burn up the bottom line or sink a range of products – the low-quality supermarket steak masquerading as prime Welsh beef, say, or the pair of socks that turns out to be made with cotton from Xinjiang, in China, where factories are suspected of using captive labour.

Oritain promises to determine with 95% accuracy if a coffee bean or a cut of meat is really from the source advertised on its label. Some items are easier to analyse than others. “Tea is a . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:57 am

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