Opinion: Countering the counterfeiters

Elementar’s Mike Seed on why elemental analysers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers are a key weapon in the ongoing fight against the forgers

As the global economy grows ever more closely interconnected, the complexity of international supply chains becomes harder and harder to reliably monitor and regulate. For businesses seeking to promote and profit from the benefits of a truly globalised marketplace, this poses some major challenges.

No matter what sector they operate in, whether this is food, medical products, clothing, cosmetics or anything in between, manufacturers understand that consumer trust in the quality and traceability of the products they buy is absolutely essential for a healthy market.

As such, the recent rise in the sale of low-quality counterfeit goods in multiple categories is likely to be recognised for what it is: a very serious threat.

Tackling the spread of fake goods in a complex trading environment is proving difficult. Still, it is important for manufacturers to cling fast to their commitment to time-tested internal quality control processes, and to recognise just how effective proven methodologies like elemental and isotopic analysis can be in tackling the dangers that counterfeiters pose.

The rising tide of counterfeit products

Counterfeit products have posed problems for manufacturers since time immemorial. Industry data indicates that the issue has grown more pronounced in recent years, and may still be getting worse.

Figures collated by the Organisation for OECD and the EU Intellectual Property Office in March 2019 demonstrated that between 2013 and 2016, the share of global trade made up by counterfeit and pirated goods grew significantly despite overall world trade experiencing a relative slowdown during this period.

Industry data indicates that the issue has grown more pronounced in recent years, and may still be getting worse

As of 2016, the volume of international trade in counterfeit or pirated products was estimated at around €460 billion, comprising a 3.3% overall share of world trade, up from 2.5% three years earlier.

In the EU alone, shipments of counterfeit products were valued at around €121bn, making up a 6.8% proportion of EU imports, compared to 5% in 2013.

Products making up the majority of those seized by the authorities included footwear, clothing, leather goods, electrical equipment, watches, medical equipment, perfume, toys, jewellery and pharmaceuticals.

It was also noted that several types of fake goods that have not been commonly counterfeited in the past, such as branded guitars and construction materials, are starting to be seen more frequently.

By some distance, China and Hong Kong continue to be the most common countries of origin for these illegal goods, with nations including the US, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the UK affected most prominently.

Mike Seed
Sales and Product manager
Elementar UK

The risk posed by fake products

A proliferation of fake goods creates more challenging conditions for businesses. The flooding of a specific market with low-cost, low-quality alternatives can create a race-to-the-bottom dynamic, making it difficult for companies to remain profitable when they are spending more on putting their products through the required quality assurance and regulatory licensing processes.

In addition to the financial damage caused by these infringements on trademarks and copyrights, the sale of fake goods can help to foment genuine real-world dangers. Not only do they divert profits away from legitimate enterprises and into the world of organised crime, but their poor quality can also pose serious health and safety risks to end-users.

The OECD highlights medical supplies, car parts, toys, food and cosmetics brands and electrical goods as examples of products that can genuinely endanger the lives of users when created in substandard conditions.

For instance, ineffective prescription therapies and unsafe dental filling materials, or dangerous chemicals in lipstick and baby formula, will have clearly negative implications for public health, while low-quality electrical casings and construction materials pose a real risk of fire hazards and structural failures.

All of these are major problems, and it will be of great concern to legitimate manufacturers that they are becoming more prevalent.

The OECD highlights medical supplies, car parts, toys, food and cosmetics brands and electrical goods as examples of products that can genuinely endanger the lives of users when created in substandard conditions.

Due to the growing ubiquity of online marketplaces selling unverified products with relatively little oversight, it has never been easier for consumers to purchase forged or black market items, whether intentionally or by mistake.

Elemental and isotopic analysis: a tried-and-tested solution

The issue of counterfeiting is not one that is likely to go away on its own, which is why it is so vital that businesses are doing everything they can to verify the quality and authenticity of any products they are creating or selling.

This means making optimal use of tried-and-tested analytical methods to ensure that legitimate sellers are able to confidently stand by the quality of their products, whether they are the original manufacturers or a reseller lower down the supply chain.

Elemental and isotopic analysis has always been a crucial tool in this process, but given the current challenges facing legitimate traders, it could be set to take on an even greater role.

Using highly precise scientific instrumentation, such as elemental analysers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers, pharmaceutical manufacturers are able to analyse samples of a particular product, evaluating elemental and isotopic concentrations of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur to assess its purity and origin.

The tools can also be used to appraise the quality and authenticity of materials, giving them a wide range of industry applications.

Using highly precise scientific instrumentation, such as elemental analysers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers, pharmaceutical manufacturers are able to analyse samples of a particular product

Isotopic analysis has further applications in the world of food authentication, evaluating the unique isotope ratio of foodstuff to determine its origin and composition. This helps to highlight any signs of illegal adulteration and prevents mislabelling of food items within premium or protected categories.

None of these techniques are necessarily new, but at a time when counterfeiting is causing more and more harm and costing the industry increasing amounts of money, tools like this are becoming essential to help international enterprises to protect their operating models and uphold the value of their products.

With modern instrumentation designed to be versatile, efficient and largely automated, these technologies have become an indispensable part of commercial laboratory workflows, and a key weapon in the ongoing fight against the forgers.

After all, there is little chance of the world’s trade networks becoming smaller or less complex in the years to come, which means that counterfeiting operations will only grow more sophisticated and harder to combat.

By adopting a methodical, evidence-based and scientifically proven approach to testing and authentication, businesses in all sectors can make sure they retain consumer trust in their product quality - a commodity that is easy to lose and difficult to regain.

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