18-09-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

For many, cheese is life, and while the golden gooey food is undoubtedly heavenly, not all wheels of cheese are equal in quality and price. Recognising the challenges faced with counterfeit parmesan cheese, a Chicago-based tech company has begun embedding microchips into cheese for the purpose of authentication. 

The rise of counterfeit goods has led to innovative solutions like the p-Chip, a micro-transponder developed by p-Chip Corp. This technology offers a unique approach to tracking, visibility, and authentication of physical products. The p-Chip, smaller than a grain of salt, acts as a digital anchor for products, providing unprecedented visibility and indexability at an affordable price. What challenges do counterfeit goods introduce, what is the tech company doing, and will microchips embedded into food packaging help with supply chain management and authentication?

What challenges do counterfeit food goods introduce?

We all know that counterfeit goods are rarely as good as the original, and while they may be cheap, they are counterfeit for a reason. Counterfeits are almost always made from low-grade materials; they often contain fake parts that themselves are counterfeits (see fake chips), and in many cases, can be made using poor labour practices, going as far as being made via modern slavery.

But while a counterfeit Gucci or iPhone is unlikely to harm you, counterfeit food has the potential to be utterly devastating. A great example of one food that is commonly counterfeited is extra-virgin olive oil. 

For those who are not foodies, extra virgin olive oil is made from olives that have not been processed, pressed, or heated, and the extraction process itself is just pure pressure (this makes them virgin olives). Because of this, extra virgin olive oil is highly sought after due to its delicate flavour, high quality, and ability to be used directly as a food (such as poured over bread). This, in turn, makes authentic extra virgin olive oil very valuable.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that criminals will try to mix low-grade olive oil with extra virgin olive oil in an attempt to make a serious profit. But doing so not only hurts the industry but also carries potential risks to those who may have allergies. As there is no control over the supply chain of counterfeit oil, it is possible for all kinds of contaminants to make their way into the final product. To put the problem into perspective, in 2019, the German and Italian authorities seized around 150,000 litres of fake extra virgin olive oil.

This counterfeiting also applies to foods with protected trademarks, such as Cornish pasties, champagne, and even parmesan cheese. In fact, one notable incident of a major counterfeiting operation was the 2013 horse meat scandal, where beef sold in many shops across the UK was found to contain horse meat. While the presence of horse meat didn’t present a health concern, the lack of supply chain protection and traceability launched serious reform. 

Chicago company implants microchips into parmesan cheese for authenticity

Many cultures and people around the world take food seriously, and the Italians are no exception to this. Considering that fresh, authentic ingredients are a staple in good Italian cuisine, the need to stamp out counterfeit foods is a daily pain for those trying to make the best dishes possible. One such food that can cause issues is Parmesan, and this is due to the fact that while this famous hard cheese can be technically made anywhere, only hard cheese from Parma (Italy) is considered Parmesan (outside of the EU, this type of cheese has the designation Parmesan Reggiano). 

But trying to identify fake Parmesan cheese is not simple, and even some of the best food critics can be fooled into thinking they are eating the real stuff. Recognising this challenge, a Chicago-based company has developed a new micro transponder that can be directly injected into the rind of the cheese and used to verify the authenticity of the cheese. 

Once injected, the microchip can provide tracking and authentication methods to not only show where the cheese has been but where it was made and who made it. The chip, which is no larger than a grain of salt, powers itself via pulsed laser light from a reader. Once powered, the chip sends ultra-low frequency radio waves.

Compared to traditional RFID and barcode solutions, the new solution, called p-chip, is significantly smaller (due to the lack of a large antenna), costs significantly less due to the lack of additional materials, and eliminates the issues of adherence to objects as it can be easily embedded into packaging. The new chip also has fewer issues when operating near metal and can operate in wider temperature ranges

Finally, the new chip has been said to be food-safe, is virtually impossible to counterfeit, and can withstand solvents and reagents. Thus, the new p-chip could be the future of authentication and goods tracking.

The p-Chip micro-transponder is not just a replacement for existing solutions but a reimagining of what can be achieved. Imagine being able to track individual pills, monitor critical engine components under extreme conditions, or trace the origin of a single grape. Such granular visibility offers unparalleled quality control, product security, safety compliance, and brand protection. With p-Chip, businesses can enhance revenue, foster brand loyalty, and ensure the safety and authenticity of their products.

Will such chips help with supply chain management and tracking?

What the researchers have demonstrated with their new chip clearly demonstrates the power of embedded electronics in future of packaging. The tiny size of the device means that thousands can easily be mass-produced at a fractional cost, and the use of lasers to power the device eliminates the need for an onboard power source. 

Of course, this means that the chip cannot actively operate during transit, as laser power is needed to activate it. But considering that these chips are incredibly small and virtually impossible to counterfeit, future products embedded with this solution could very well help to provide a secure foundation for product authentication and traceability. 

While these chips won’t be used anytime soon in everyday packaging, it is highly likely to become the norm in the next decade. In the future, technologies integrated into smartphones will allow anyone to scan goods to identify authenticity as well as read a full list of ingredients and contents. In fact, these chips may even incorporate sensors that can determine the quality of a product, thereby giving users exact details on whether something has turned or not.

The p-Chip technology has already garnered attention, with features on platforms like "Viewpoint with Dennis Quaid". As the world moves towards more secure and transparent supply chains, innovations like the p-Chip will play a pivotal role in ensuring product authenticity and safety. The potential applications of this technology are vast, from revolutionising food tracking to ensuring product security with highly secure QR code solutions.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.