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SPECIAL REPORT: Beating the counterfeiters

The focus and technical capabilities of counterfeiters around the world continue to expand. 

Fake goods are now the biggest global brand, said to be worth around $650 billion (at least 5-7% of world trade), and growing exponentially – thanks, especially, to the new opportunities presented by online selling.  Counterfeit wines and spirits are today very much part of that scenario – at a variety of levels.  

A scam based around the provenance of a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite (among others), supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, and sold as such at auction for a world record price of $156,000, is the subject of an upcoming Hollywood film.  Today, according to analysts, 70% of bottles of Château Lafite sold in China are fake – even though 50,000 genuine bottles are imported each year from the estate to meet demand from the country’s growing wealthy population. The issue is magnified

Both consumer safety and  the protection of the intellectual property rights of wine producers/brand owners are therefore prime concerns, at every price and demographic level.   It is therefore good to know that the last ten years have seen significant technological advances in the available options for authenticating labels, bottles, cans, bag-in-box, pouches, waxed cartons, and other packaging for drinks – both at an overt and covert level.  

The producer’s role

The producer company must, for sure,  be the starting point for any platform of product authentication -- and for securing the supply chain.  This is an arena where converters can and do contribute in a variety of ways particularly in relation to solutions involving product packaging --  the prime area to which authentication and tamper-evident devices are added.  It is reassuring to know that many of the available options can easily be incorporated into the stock-in-trade of regular packaging and label production companies, so the task of devising an appropriate authentication menu need not be any more daunting than engaging in a conversation with a regular supplier of labels or packaging.

Solutions overview

There are many levels at which authentication, tamper-evident, and track-and-trace elements can be added to product packaging to provide the broadest possible umbrella of protection, and they are often used in tandem. The three major solution platforms employed today are devices for visual authentication, either with the naked eye or a scanner);  secure track-and-trace systems (creating a continuum through the supply and distribution chain);   and the addition of features on or within packaging that are difficult, or impossible, to replicate.  

Perhaps one of the most familiar devices for identifying an authentic product is the barcode, applied to labels or, in the case of waxed packaging and flexible film pouches, direct to the pack itself. The simple one-dimension al barcode is partnered today by 2D barcodes and, based on the 2D technology, 3D barcodes, and together they make up the most ubiquitous track-and-trace technology, with international standards for the many available platforms now in place.  Mass serial numbering, which can trace right down to an individual barcode on an individual pack, makes the barcode a unique single-item identifier.  Barcodes can be applied separately from, or intrinsic to, the brand packaging, using a variety of digital print technologies, and can even be applied direct to metal, plastic, or glass;  and today’s ubiquitous on-pack QR codes, easy to read with a smart phone, are increasingly finding favour as an alternative to ‘specialist’ scanners across the entire authentication market.   RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are another option.

Overt, entry-level security devices used on all types of packaging are familiar to consumers, and are a popular choice as a means of reassurance of brand authenticity and purity.   Examples are over-the-cap, easily-frangible self-adhesive paper 'seals' on bottles, or perforated stretch or shrink sleeve cap seals, which provide ready visual evidence of tampering. Other first-level devices include 'hidden word' self-adhesive label constructions. Applied as clearly-visible pack seals, they provide strong visual proof of tampering if the seal is broken, since they leave behind a visible warning message. The word 'void' is standard in the industry, but personalisation is possible.  

High-value wines and spirits can be effectively destroyed if the bottle must be opened to authenticate its contents, so overt solutions have much to contribute in this arena. Special security tags providing a tailored solution for wines and spirits have been developed. They are attached to the seal on the neck of a bottle to guarantee that the bottle has not previously been opened;  and the potential buyer can simply and instantly verify the bottle’s provenance via the use of the internet or a mobile phone.  

Optically-variable devices (OVDs), in the form of holograms, are well-recognised and respected  by consumers. Today they vary in their level of sophistication.   At their simplest, they can be merely generic – created by a patterned print substrate, and offering very little security value. Inks – both standard and ‘sympathetic’ (colour changing, reacting to heat or light) – and varnishes can be used to create visible patterns or other identifiers during the process of printing the pack or label. So can embossing patterns on the foil substrates used for spirits labelling.

Holograms, however, may also today feature advanced and patented features for unique, instant verification of product authenticity that are difficult to simulate such as customer-unique micro incisions or kinetic effects such as colour changing.

Many authentication features can be engineered into a label substrate, such as two-  or three-dimensional customer-exclusive ‘watermarks’;  UV- or IR-light-detectable nylon fibres of a specific length or colour;   metal strips or fragments, polyester security threads, thermochromic threads, and micro-marked fibres, invisible to the naked eye.  In the wider world of packaging, solvent-sensitive papers, which prevent information from being removed with the use of solvent, are also available. Iridescent security colour stripes, impossible to reproduce by photocopier, offset print, or computer printers, can be added to papers. Near-IR fluorophores, chemical taggants, and microtaggants, including even plant DNA, can also be added to a container or label, detectable only with dedicated scanners; and there are tagging systems which are even invisible to forensic trace methods.

Authentication and track-and-trace solutions are often layered on the packaging of sensitive and high-value goods such as drinks and cosmetics in customer-unique (and even product-unique) applications. This affords the highest level of security. 

Of course, the packaging of wines and spirits does not purely constitute what is applied to the outer surface. The cork in a wine bottle may also be uniquely identified, either with a barcode or a brand name; a glass bottle may have special shape elements added as an identifier;  a screw cap may be uniquely identified on its inner surface. Batch identification of bulk packaging for transit is a further opportunity area for adding security features.

Consumer safety
‘Security’ also implies the safety of the consumer, so it is worth mentioning another element of providing a safe solution: head-to-toe, all-round shrink sleeve labels, currently popular for FABs and occasionally seen on wine bottles.  Shrink sleeves on glass bottles reduce the danger of cuts during handling from cracked or broken glass, as well as providing tamper-evidence around the cap seal.

A challenge to solutions providers?
Since higher-end wines may well be laid down for years, even decades, any security device must also be capable of withstanding this test of time.  It should also be appreciated that this same time consideration gives counterfeiters ample opportunity to check out all security details at leisure, making the challenge of providing and maintaining appropriate security infinitely more complex in terms of creating layered levels of security.  In this last respect, I am not aware of any security device that is intended to change characteristics as it ages so that, in itself, the device’s properties change along with the rest of the packaging,  making it difficult to replicate. For long-aged wines, this could be a valuable aid to authentication that could obviate situations like the Jefferson bottles – and represents a real possibility for innovation by solutions providers.

Whatever the combination of product-unique solutions selected to authenticate a brand, it is worth remembering that counterfeiters are clever and will strive to unravel any combination – so it is important to change the combination of overt/covert identifiers periodically.   There are plenty of options from which to choose;  and the on-cost of employing them is very much less than the loss of the integrity of your name and reputation.

AWA Alexander Watson Associates is a global business-to-business market research, publishing, and advisory services company with a unique industry focus on the specialty paper, film, packaging, coating, and converting industry.

Dr William Llewellyn, vice president and senior consultant, AWA Alexander Watson Associates


11 March 2013 - Dr William Llewellyn