Thursday, March 17, 2005

What Price Authenticity?

This weeks Nature reports that Japanese delicacies may soon become more expensive, as officials as well as retailers are beginning to use genetic testing to ensure that products really are what their sellers claim. Just as with many European products, the area from which the product comes is considered important for the quality of the product and is often used in marketing. Testing of products such as crabs, seaweed and tofu is considered, according to the article.

Of course, this is only feasible if the difference really is genetic and not due to the local environment (for comparison, champagne is 'real champagne' because it comes from the right district, with a certain quality of soil, in France, the same kind of grapes may be grown in other places as well). To find genetic markers that indicate, with a very low level of doubt, that each product is "the real thing" can be come complicated, especially if accidental crossing or breeding has occurred previously. Personally, I would say that quality could depend at least as much on careful handling of your "product" as where it came from, but this will of course vary from case to case. If given the choice to eat of two genetically identical chickens, one reared with antibiotics and one without, would you say that the quality doesn't depend on the environment they were reared in?

Nature cites Yoshito Tsuya, an agricultural economist at Utsunomiya University, as saying that genetic testing may force up the price, but that customers will be prepared to pay more "to make sure they get the real thing". To what level of surety, one may ask? There is no such thing as 100% correctness in testing (especially if you put the testing in the hands of persons that may or may not be educated enough to perform it correctly), and would you be prepared to pay twice as much for something that has a, say, 10% chance to be generic despite its certificate?

But for someone who is not that scientifically literate, "approved by genetic testing" undoubtedly sounds impressive and reassuring. And it is bound to be great for marketing. Not to mention for the companies that develop and sell the testing kits.

If one must measure something as dodgy as "authenticity", why not use professional tasters or chemical analysis by something like mass spectroscopy (to measure the proportions of trace amounts of characteristic compounds)? Not that that may always work, either, if the similarities are too big. Which, of course leads to the question at the bottom of this: if something is, by all possible measurements, identical to something else - which one is the copy?

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