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"Counterfix" -- The Discovery Files

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A new, simple technique developed by engineers from the University of California, Riverside, can detect fake drugs by using a video recorded as a sample undergoes a disturbance. The researchers report they have used an algorithm-based technology, called "chronoprinting," which requires only a few relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment and free software to accurately distinguish pure from inferior food and medicines. The World Health Organization says that about 10 percent of all medicines in low- and middle-income countries are counterfeit, and food fraud is a global problem that costs consumers and industry billions of dollars per year.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Make it or fake it?

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Olive oil. Cough syrup. Prescription drugs. Some of the most commonly counterfeited or messed-around-with foods or drugs. It's so widespread, -- especially in underdeveloped countries 'cause it's not been easy to spot the fakes from the real deal. You need like, highly trained experts and expensive gear which, even if you did have, would take a ton of effort and money to break the fakes.

Engineers at the University of California, Riverside, have got this. An amazingly simple, accurate technique that takes videos of the samples under certain conditions and turns them into bitmap images. Much like the online photo tools that organize your pics with algorithms for facial recognition, the UC Riverside technology uses these algorithms to take what's called a chronoprint -- that visualizes how the sample reacted over time -- when say, frozen with liquid nitrogen or exposed to heat. The suspected fake food or drug print is compared to one of the actual product under the same conditions.

If it's real, the images will match. Fake foods or drugs tested were super obvious. The team says the tests require just a few pieces of inexpensive equipment and free software downloaded from their website.

Fakers and fraudsters in this picture, might say we caught your bad side.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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