For the perfect cuppa, tech firm's scanner leaves nothing to chance

Start-up's ProfilePrint can analyse and verify any dried plant-based product

Local start-up teapasar has devised a faster and more economical way to authenticate and identify plant-based food and drink.

The food-tech's ProfilePrint portable scanner was unveiled yesterday at the Singapore Tea Festival, held at Jewel Changi Airport.

The scanner can analyse and verify any dried plant-based product, but the company is now focusing on tea - a product prone to counterfeit varieties and other scams.

The scanner can determine whether the tea is authentic or if it has been tampered with. It also pinpoints the exact region where the tea was harvested.

Teapasar co-founder and executive director Alan Lai said: "The current system of protecting food authenticity relies a lot on paperwork, labelling and packaging. But paperwork can be easily manipulated. We let the science and data verify instead."

The ProfilePrint technology was developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Food Science and Technology programme and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The device unveiled yesterday is a commercial rendition that is faster and cheaper than an initial version launched last year.

Teapasar places the cost at "a few thousand dollars" but a figure has not been confirmed yet.

Three tea firms - from Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Japan - are already working with teapasar to customise the scanner for their own needs or obtain proof of concept.

The scanner is quick and easy to use. A small sample of leaves is put into the machine, which then analyses the molecular properties that comprise its "tea fingerprint".

This "fingerprint" is then run through teapasar's database of more than 1,200 tea profiles to find a match.

Any deviation from the authentic profile can be singled out and the tea's adulteration traced.

All this can be done in seconds without breaking down the tea leaf sample, which saves long periods of laboratory testing.

The tea market has long been riddled with counterfeits and adulterated tea, which pose health risks and affect market prices.

A recent scandal centred on a private company in India that had 40 tonnes of adulterated tea seized from its factory last month.

And in 2017, a Taiwanese tea farmer imported tea from Vietnam, mixed it with a Taiwan-produced variety and sold it as Lugu Dong Ting oolong tea at an inflated price.

Tea drinker Li, who declined to give her full name, said she would not mind inauthentic tea if she did not pay a high price for it, but added: "If I bought it from a speciality shop and it cost quite a bit, then I would consider it unethical."

Ms Li, 23, said that counterfeit teas would never substitute for the real thing, especially teas such as Taiwanese Alishan, "which must be grown in a specific manner". "There's no guarantee that more expensive tea means it's authentic."

The Singapore Tea Festival is now in its third year. It is the second time that the event has been organised by teapasar.

The festival ends tomorrow.