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What’s needed for Provenance or product authentication

What’s needed for Provenance or product authentication

By Barry McGookin

Not surprisingly, but sadly, the more profit to be made, the greater likelihood someone will seek to counterfeit, fraud or reposition a product in their favour.

To know where an item is within a supply chain is one thing. To know if the supply chain or the product has been breached is another. Both questions require visibility of data between participants in the supply chain. The ability to ensure quality or legitimacy is needed for ongoing trade, but it’s not always possible at point of purchase, a reality that has been the source of many confrontations over thousands of years.

Importantly nothing is fool proof. Those that plan to find a way around protective hurdles will still do so. That brings the conversation to one about product legitimacy. Product legitimacy can also be called provenance. Provenance is a term that can cover both the origins of the product and ingredients, but also the legitimacy of the product itself in line with the description e.g. Australian cherries. Australian Cherries provenance is carried in the origin of the Cherries and that the product is in fact cherries.

With the rapid rise of IT based traceability capabilities, provenance is regularly considered and discussed as a sub-set of traceability. In reality, to gain brand and market reputation, traceability is the servant of provenance allowing a trail of information that can verify the legitimacy of the product and its origins.

Many of the elements needed to underpin provenance are the same as those for a good traceability capability. The traceability elements are covered in a separate article.

The key factors needed in a good Provenance system are;

  1. A physical barrier(s) or deterrent       
    • Packaging that is tamper evident, or not able to be breached, or is difficult to copy or fake
    • Packaging descriptors that accurately reflect the product credentials e.g. Cape Grim Beef
  2. Agreed reference standard(s) to which any anomaly is able to be compared
    • Sometimes the simplest things are the best. Simply agreeing between provider and buyer on what good looks like, and how to assess quality can be a great option to confirm authenticity.
    • Adding to the agreed quality can easily be done by sharing a reference product or ‘gold standard’ between the ends of a supply chain. When all parties know what the reference is, particularly if the shipping product has a unique marker, can save time and reduce misconceptions about the origin of a product
  3. A data capture and data repository system
    • A data/information traceability process able to provide authenticity and security of documentation relating to an item’s origin, journey and composition. More often this is now an IT system
      1. Examples of IT systems are Blockchain or a Centralised Data Base
      2. Good systems can pass on encrypted documentation that validates the product and its origins and its journey
  4. A forensic assessment capability able to provide evidence or certainty of uniqueness and origin of materials at the point of receipt or at final sales destination
    • There are a range of differing analytical approaches to determining provenance. While the actual technology or the tests vary, the basic premise for all provenance confirmation testing is they produce a ‘fingerprint’ or unique identifier profile for a specific product. Importantly just how geographically specific a profile can be is dependent on the test type.
    • Key to the use of any provenance testing outcomes is the ability to utilise the test to assist with geographic provenance, either for positive brand image and consumer interaction, or for defence of a brand against competitive positioning or counterfeit products. If it’s not possible to use information to back up a location claim, why do the test?
    • Forensic assessment capabilities are needed to describe components or overall product / the container at
      1. the point of origin of materials
      2. point of receipt or handover to a partner in the value chain
      3. at final sales destination
    • While there are a range of assessment tools of variable description capability, for best outcomes, an assessment tool should one that is;
      1. agreed to as the appropriate assessment option across borders and agencies
      2. available in differing geographic locations
      3. able to be undertaken by appropriately qualified staff
      4. appropriate to describe the container or product at a cost and level sufficient for the transfer of ownership along the value chain
  5. Training and investment in human capital and trusted partners to create as secure or closed supply loop as possible
    • Manipulation of the supply chain is always done by people. While there is a need for physical and IT prevention measures, including trusted human partners throughout the supply chain can reduce the risk of interference and increase the certainty of product provenance.

While the future needs and solutions for providing product provenance are not clear, they will continue to need a range of measures for the best result. Physical or electronic approaches by themselves are not the ideal solution and companies should invest in more than one option for best marketplace value, supply security and consumer confidence.

All that’s a lot to ask and can be costly so the value of the provenance claim v the protection measures is a key question for any company to ask. If there is a good business case to be made for protection and allows for an improved margin at sale, good provenance may be useful. If the margin for provenance is not valued by customers or consumers, then elements of protection can be reduced.

Another important question is ‘what level of control do you have on the supply chain at point of distribution?’. If your product is sold to a distributor that on-sells without your brand, or when a product is consumed there is no brand presence, the value proposition for provenance is significantly reduced. Traceability may be more valuable in these cases. However, it’s worth considering if there is additional value from Provenance that can be made at point of sale to a distributor. 

Overall, the product is your brand and your reputation. Consider carefully how much you want to protect that reputation before you put Provenance in the unnecessary business cost category.

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