University of Waterloo grads develop nano ink to help identify counterfeit goods

A group of University of Waterloo grads have developed a nano ink that will help consumers identify counterfeit goods.

University of Waterloo grads develop nano ink to help consumers identify counterfeit goods

A new nano ink developed by a Waterloo startup will help consumers identify counterfeit products, including food. (Kamila Hinkson/CBC)

Whether it's the white tuna at a sushi restaurant or the carrots at the farmers' market labelled "Product of Canada," it can sometimes be hard for consumers to know if what they're buying is actually what they're getting.

Food fraud is on the rise and that's why a group of University of Waterloo nanotechnology engineering graduates are working on a tool to help shoppers identify a product they plan to purchase.

That tool is a nano ink.

"We use it to apply invisible labels onto the product's packaging, and these labels are very secure, so that is to say, they're very difficult to copy. And they can be detected using any smartphone that is equipped with a camera," said Perry Everett, CEO of Arylla.

Food fraud 'quite rampant'

"Food fraud, I think, is a foreign concept to most people but in fact is quite rampant," Everett said.

"What we would like to do is be able to print something onto the food packaging in order to provide the consumer a much more transparent experience when they go to their local supermarket."
Arylla, a Waterloo startup, has created a nano ink that can be used on product labels so consumers can make sure what they're buying isn't counterfeit. (Arylla)

Seafood is one of the biggest problems, but their nano ink can be used on "any food where you can't visually determine quality, or even by taste," he said. 

Earlier this year, a Kingsville, Ont., company was fined $1.5 million by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for misrepresenting where some of its products came from.

Mucci International Marketing Inc. faced eight charges of fraudulent misrepresentation of "country of origin" for greenhouse peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers over a 15-month period. The vegetables were sold with "Product of Canada" labels when in fact, the produce had been imported.

Ink affordable, versatile 

Counterfeit products are a problem in many sectors, but sometimes consumers know what they're getting themselves into when buying a product.

"With fashion, when you buy a counterfeit item, that doesn't necessarily mean that you would have bought the legitimate item if you had been given the chance, whereas in something like agriculture or food, you're buying it specifically for what it says on the label. So if you are getting something else, something less valuable, it's certainly a cause for concern," Everett said.

There are also concerns about counterfeit electronics – such as manufacturers using phony components inside other products that end up being defective – pharmaceuticals and even pesticides.

Everett said the company is in the final stages of research and development and they hope to begin a pilot project in March.

Everett said they believe the product will be successful because, even though there are similar products for niche areas – like on fine art pieces – their product is far less expensive and much more versatile. As well, they are looking at creating an ink that would be FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved to use directly on foods.