In order to combat counterfeiting, a Hawaii-based startup has developed a unique tagging system which in the not-too-distant future could well enable smartphone users to scan their own medicines directly to verify authenticity.

Edible bar codes designed to reduce risks from counterfeit products

Every year counterfeit medicines cause the deaths of over 100,000 people worldwide and also represent a loss of around a trillion dollars to the pharmaceutical industry. Lack of traceability means it is very difficult to verify product quality on the spot. Moreover bar codes on packaging can be faked and therefore provide inadequate protection. On a mission to overcome this lack of traceability, Honolulu-based TruTag Technologies has developed edible bar codes – dubbed TruTags – which can be incorporated into  medicines, foodstuffs and also other types of products and then scanned using the company’s proprietary optical reader. The startup was recently honored by the World Economic Forum as a 2014 Technology Pioneer, an award conferred on companies which are expected to have a significant impact on business and society. Google, Twitter and DropBox are among previous Technology Pioneer award winners.

Continual traceability

The TruTag microtags are made of micro-particles of silica, a material authorized as edible by the US Food and Drug Administration, which can be embedded into the very fabric of a product so as to ensure ongoing traceability. Once items have been ‘TruTagged’, client companies can use the proprietary instrument to scan products. The coded details are then sent by smartphone through to the TruTag server, which carries out a detailed analysis – including composition, manufacturer, expiry date, recommendations for use, and so on and feeds this information back to the client. As with a digital fingerprint, the code developed by TruTag Technologies is indelible and uniquely formulated for each product so as to ensure full transparency and up-to-date quality information.

Decisive step change in terms of scale

TruTag is entering a market that is already mature, as many companies have already developed ways of combatting food and medicine counterfeiting. Some months ago L’Atelier published an article on LabDoor,a service which grades various medicines, supplements and cosmetics for consumers. The LabDoor app enables a customer to access a ranking based on additional laboratory tests and to see the results on his/her mobile device. Meanwhile the Pentagon now requires suppliers to make microcircuits used in its military hardware traceable by means of a system which uses patented plant-based DNA. However, this expensive process is not designed to protect mass market foods and medicines. TruTag therefore looks set to trigger a true change of scale by incorporating the marker directly into medicines and foodstuffs in order to provide a continuous chain of traceability. The company has already launched several pilot projects with a number of pharmaceuticals manufacturers and food producers before moving to market its invention on a global scale.

By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst