A view on developments affecting Global Customs & Trade
Author /Mike Poverello
Posts by Mike Poverello
I have spent the best part of 28 years in the service of South African Customs, and a further 5 years as a free-lance consultant to the customs industry as well as an advisor on several customs systems modernisation programmes with international ICT and consulting firms between 1998 and 2002. Like many of my peers and numerous colleagues worldwide, "customs" is not another government department, but an institution which has as much a 'corporate identity' as it is an arm of government. Perhaps, I'm guilty of nostalgia at times gone by, but it nevertheless concerns me what is happening to so many customs administrations. First, many have by government decree merged into what is otherwise known as a 'Revenue Authority', with some success - as is the case with Customs in South Africa. A more recent development sees the customs being removed from its traditional 'treasury' base into 'Border Security Agencies'. Some fortunate administrations appear to have retained their independance which makes the organisational mandate and objectives more focussed and attainable. Through this 'blog' I wish to share my experiences and encourage those of you of like mind to collaborate.
During December 2019, the World Customs Organization (WCO) issued its 2018 Illicit Trade Report, the annual publication in which the Organization endeavours to quantify and map the situation concerning illicit markets in six key areas of Customs enforcement.
Every year since 2012, the WCO has published its Illicit Trade Report with the aim of contributing to the study of the illicit trade phenomenon through robust and in-depth data analysis based on voluntary submissions of seizure data and case studies by its Member Customs administrations around the world.
This year, the analysis provided in this Report is based on data collected from 154 Member administrations, compared to 135 the previous year. The Report consists of six sections: Cultural Heritage; Drugs; Environment; Intellectual Property Rights, Health and Safety; and Revenue and Security.
For the third year in a row, the WCO has partnered with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting, thereby enriching readers’ experience with advanced data visualization technologies and enhanced data analysis.
“This analysis of 2018 illicit trafficking trends and patterns around the globe is aimed not only at supporting law enforcement planning activities, but also at future-proofing countries’ borders from the multitude of threats faced on a daily basis,” stressed the WCO Secretary General, Kunio Mikuriya. He also expressed his gratitude to the Customs administrations having reported their seizure data to the WCO CEN database.
HS 2022, which is the seventh edition of the Harmonized System (HS) nomenclature used for the uniform classification of goods traded internationally all over the world, has been accepted by the all Contracting Parties to the Harmonized System Convention. It shall come into force on 1 January 2022.
The HS serves as the basis for Customs tariffs and for the compilation of international trade statistics in 211 economies (of which 158 are Contracting Parties to the HS Convention). The new HS2022 edition makes some major changes to the Harmonized System with a total of 351 sets of amendments covering a wide range of goods moving across borders. Here are some of the highlights:
Adaption to current trade through the recognition of new product streams and addressing environmental and social issues of global concern are the major features of the HS 2022 amendments.
Visibility will be introduced to a number of high profile product streams in the 2022 Edition to recognise the changing trade patterns. Electrical and electronic waste, commonly referred to as e-waste, is one example of a product class which presents significant policy concerns as well as a high value of trade, hence HS 2022 includes specific provisions for its classification to assist countries in their work under the Basel Convention. New provisions for novel tobacco and nicotine based products resulted from the difficulties of the classification of these products, lack of visibility in trade statistics and the very high monetary value of this trade. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, also gain their own specific provisions to simplify the classification of these aircraft. Smartphones will gain their own subheading and Note, which will also clarify and confirm the current heading classification of these multifunctional devices.
Major reconfigurations have been undertaken for the subheadings of heading 70.19 for glass fibres and articles thereof and for heading 84.62 for metal forming machinery. These changes recognize that the current subheadings do not adequately represent the technological advances in these sectors, leaving a lack of trade statistics important to the industries and potential classification difficulties.
One area which is a focus for the future is the classification of multi-purpose intermediate assemblies. However, one very important example of such a product has already been addressed in HS 2022. Flat panel display modules will be classified as a product in their own right which will simplify classification of these modules by removing the need to identify final use. Health and safety has also featured in the changes. The recognition of the dangers of delays in the deployment of tools for the rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases in outbreaks has led to changes to the provisions for such diagnostic kits to simplify classification. New provisions for placebos and clinical trial kits for medical research to enable classification without information on the ingredients in a placebos will assist in facilitating cross-border medical research. Cell cultures and cell therapy are among the product classes that have gained new and specific provisions. On a human security level, a number of new provisions specifically provide for various dual use items. These range from toxins to laboratory equipment.
Protection of society and the fight against terrorism are increasingly important roles for Customs. Many new subheadings have been created for dual use goods that could be diverted for unauthorized use, such as radioactive materials and biological safety cabinets, as well as for items required for the construction of improvised explosive devices, such as detonators.
Goods specifically controlled under various Conventions have also been updated. The HS 2022 Edition introduces new subheadings for specific chemicals controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), for certain hazardous chemicals controlled under the Rotterdam Convention and for certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs) controlled under the Stockholm Convention. Furthermore, at the request of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), new subheadings have been introduced for the monitoring and control of fentanyls and their derivatives as well as two fentanyl precursors. Major changes, including new heading Note 4 to Section VI and new heading 38.27, have been introduced for gases controlled under the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol.
The changes are not confined to creating new specific provisions for various goods. The amendments also include clarification of texts to ensure uniform application of the nomenclature. For example, there are changes for the clarification and alignment between French and English of the appropriate way to measure wood in the rough for the purposes of subheadings under heading 44.03.
Given the wide scope of the changes, there are many important changes not mentioned in this short introduction. All interested parties are encourage to read the Recommendation carefully (to be published soon).
While January 2022 may seem far off, a lot of work needs to be done at WCO, national and regional levels for the timely implementation of the new HS edition. The WCO is currently working on the development of requisite correlation tables between the current 2017 and the new edition of the HS, and on updating the HS publications, such as the Explanatory Notes, the Classification Opinions, the Alphabetical Index and the HS online database.
Customs administrations and regional economic communities have a huge task to ensure timely implementation of the 2022 HS Edition, as required by the HS Convention. They are therefore encouraged to begin the process of preparing for the implementation of HS 2022 in their national Customs tariff or statistical nomenclatures. The WCO will step up its capacity building efforts to assist Members with their implementation.
South Korea hopes to be a leader in global customs services by offering solutions to complex international clearance procedures.
South Korea Customs Service (KCS) chief Kim Yung Moon said the agency hopes it can help foster trade relations between local businesses and partner nations worldwide.
In an interview with the Korea Times, he said the agency would continue to devote its manpower and resources to provide full support for export firms, especially the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that were the foundations of the South Korean economy.
The agency’s commitment was well-illustrated as the KCS under his leadership helped limit the fallout following the ongoing South Korea – Japan trade war that has led to major losses for South Korean exporters.
Since March, KCS officials have been dispatched to 30 customs offices nationwide to offer various forms of support, including consulting, technical aid and trade statistics data management.
The support has helped 2,189 SMEs log a combined US$2.4 billion (RM10 billion) in exports in the March-October period, up 2.2 per cent from US$2.3 billion (RM9.8 billion) the year before.
“We tried to identify what the firms needed most and came up with ideas on how we could be of assistance. I am glad we were able to fulfil our public duty,” Kim said.
In July, the KCS saved a local zinc coated steelmaker 1.3 billion won (RM4.5 million) in tariffs imposed by Taiwanese customs authorities after they accepted KCS opinion asking them to reclassify the item as a tariff-exempt product.
Similarly, a team of KCS officials was able to have the Indian customs authorities in March rescind a 10 per cent tariff imposed on Korea-made copy papers categorised as a no-tariff item under the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), a free trade agreement between South Korea and India.
This helped a local paper maker not only avoid what could have been an annual tariff of 200 million won (RM700,000), but also cleared the way for similar businesses to enter the market without the uncertainty of hefty, unexpected tariffs.
Most significant is that the agency was able to finalise the international standards on display modules, Korea’s key export item.
This allowed them to be classified as LCD modules exempt from tariffs in line with the Information Technology Agreement (ITA), a multilateral agreement enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The process required painstaking efforts to persuade members of the World Customs Organization (WCO) and it proved South Korea’s “soft power” with the international customs body comprised of 183 countries representing over 98 percent of international trade.
A senior KCS official Kang Tae Il has also been elected a director of the Capacity Building Directorate at the WCO, whose members look to South Korea for training, consulting and multilateral aid utilising official development assistance funds and Customs Cooperation Fund-Korea.
Since 2009, 3,727 customs officials from around the world have undergone training offered by the KCS.
The appointment of Kang has also boosted KCS’ standing on the global stage, coupled with its artificial intelligence-based block chain customs services in a country recognized for its high-tech infrastructure and ICT expertise.
The agency’s key achievement is UNI-PASS, a KCS-developed electronic clearance system designed to enhance swift customs clearance and logistics service convenience.
The e-clearance system highly regarded by the KCS’s global peers increases work efficiency by minimizing manual errors and improving input accuracy by auto-generation of trade records.
“We will continue our efforts to strengthen influence and boost our say in the international customs circle. We will also become a leading standard setter involving the implementation and revision of related customs practices concerning e-commerce and risk management. This will boost the standing of Korea on the global stage,” Kim said.
The contribution of Customs towards a sustainable future where social, economic, health and environmental needs are at the heart of our actions, is exemplified under the slogan “Customs fostering Sustainability for People, Prosperity and the Planet”.
International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) commitments to simplify trade documentation processes have been bolstered by the first real use of a digital ATA Carnet – the widely used international trade facilitation tool allowing duty free movement of goods for up to one year.
Issued as part of the ‘Mercury II’ pilot project to digitalise the ATA Carnet – launched by ICC in 2018 – the pioneering Swiss ATA Carnet ‘CHBE20191834’ was digitally activated by customs officials at Zurich airport on 20 October 2019. It was followed by another digital transaction of exportation formalities on the same day. Two weeks later, on 1 November, the goods were re-imported to Switzerland from Canada, declared via the ICC ATA Carnet App and subsequently digitally processed by Zurich airport customs via the ATA Carnet Customs portal.
ICC ATA Manager Yuan Chai said: “We are delighted that the test case was a success, demonstrating that it is possible to handle ATA carnets digitally and that both the concept and digital tool can transform to work well in the real world.”
Commenting on the successful test, Christian Modl, President of Alliance des Chambres de Commerce Suisses (the National Guaranteeing Association for Switzerland) said: “Switzerland, being a founding member of the ATA carnet system, we are proud and humbled to now be part of paving the way into the digital future of the ATA carnet. We trust that the first transaction on an electronic carnet is merely the start into another 65 years and more of the success story that is the ATA system.”
ICC, as the international organization administering the ATA Carnet international guaranteeing chain, is leading the on-going project to digitalise the ATA Carnet in cooperation with the World Customs Organization (WCO). The real testing phase will continue for 6 months thanks to the support of six pilot countries: Belgium, China, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Ms Chai added: “We are thankful to our project team members from the Alliance of Swiss Chambers of Commerce, the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Belgian Federation of Chambers, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the United States Council for International Business and solutions provider UDITIS.”United States Council for International Business Ms Chai added: “We are thankful to our project team members from the Alliance of Swiss Chambers of Commerce, the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Belgian Federation of Chambers, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the United States Council for International Business and solutions provider UDITIS.”
Learn more about the ICC ATA Carnet lifecycle management system in this demo video available in five languages on ICC’s YouTube channel.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has drawn up recommendations on free trade zones (FTZs) in a bid to stop them being used for illicit trade.
The new guidance– published towards the end of last month – recognises the importance FTZs can play in facilitating globalised trade and stimulating economic growth, but also that they can make life easier for “increasingly sophisticated traffickers dealing in a range of prohibited goods and services including counterfeits.”
One problems with many FTZs is that they are operated by licensed private companies – or sometimes public-private partnerships – which can sometime lead to a disconnect between FTZ internal policies and the laws and regulations laid down by the governments in whose jurisdiction they operate.
The OECD notes also that some with some FTZ the authorities struggle to get physical access to the premises, while obtaining information on the activities of organisation operating within – such as the ownership of goods in transit – can be a challenge.
The result? Some economic operators may “take advantage of inadequate oversight, control and the lack of transparency in FTZ to commit trade fraud, intellectual property rights (IPR) infringement, smuggle contraband, facilitate the proliferation of weapons and launder the proceeds of crime.”
The agency’s recommendations reaffirm the need for law enforcement and other competent authorities to have direct supervision of trade through FTZs, which includes the right to demand access to information related to the production and movement of goods and carry out inspections.
Authorities must also ensure that the organisations operating FTZs are aware of their legal obligations to counter illicit trade.
It has also developed a voluntary Code of Conduct for Clean Free Trade Zone operators, including “strict control of consignments arriving from, or for which there is evidence of having transited through, FTZs that do not implement the code.”
“While FTZs produce economic benefits to their local economies, there is strong evidence that illicit trade (e.g. counterfeits, wildlife and arms) flows through them,” says the OECD.
There is “a positive correlation between the size of FTZs – in terms of employment and numbers of firms – and the value of illicit trade in counterfeits.”
Finance Minister has launched two new IT Initiatives – ICEDASH and ATITHI for improved monitoring and pace of Customs clearance of imported goods and facilitating arriving international passengers.
ICEDASH is an Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) monitoring dashboard of the Indian Customs helping the public see the daily Customs clearance times of import cargo at various ports and airports.
With ICEDASH, Indian Customs has taken a lead globally to provide an effective tool that helps businesses compare clearance times across ports and plan their logistics accordingly.
The dashboard has been developed by CBIC in collaboration with NIC. ICEDASH can be accessed through the CBIC website.
With ATITHI, CBIC has introduced an easy to use mobile app for international travelers to file the Customs declaration in advance.
Passengers can use this app to file a declaration of dutiable items and currency with the Indian Customs even before boarding the flight to India. ATITHI is available on both, iOS and Android.
Key-Benefits of the Initiative
Improving Global Ranking – the reform carried out by the CBIC will increase India’s global ranking in the Trading Across Border.
Increase Transparency – both ICEDASH and ATITHI would be key drivers for further improvement especially as they reduce interface and increase the transparency of Customs functioning.
Encouraging Tourism – ATITHI would, in particular, create a tech-savvy image of India Customs and would encourage tourism and business travel to India.
Better International Tourist Experience – the ATITHI app will facilitate hassle-free and faster clearance by Customs at the airports and enhance the experience of international tourists and other visitors at our airports.
Source: Press Information Bureau Government of India Ministry of Finance, 4 November 2019
SARS Customs clearance has operated under a Customs Procedure Code (CPC) regime for almost 10 years now. To commemorate the 10-year anniversary, the accompanying CPC Chart and External User Guideline is intended for expert users and newcomers to Customs clearance, alike. In particular, it is important for cross-border traders to understand that the CPC combinations cannot be used indiscriminately; but, have specific meanings and associations with various other Customs rules for the electronic processing of goods for import, transit and export. Attempts to ‘fudge’ a CPC for any particular purpose or reason, may lead to a negative result downstream. Accuracy in the use and application of CPCs results in improved trade compliance, more accurate trade statistical data and fewer declaration amendments hence less penalties and lost time. Over the last decade, it is certain that most international freight forwarders and tertiary Customs training institutes and universities have introduced some or other CPC methodology into their curricula. Feel free to use this guide in support of such curricula. I do however, request that in so doing, the attached material – made freely available to you – will be delivered ‘intact’ in the form as compiled and presented here.
A Tutorial and Self Assessment Guide on the application and use of Customs Procedures Codes, for external stakeholders involved in the clearance of goods in South Africa, will shortly be uploaded to this site.
The stakeholders – from various business associations and Customs umbrella bodies – were very positive after the engagement and were open to form part of an AEO Working Group going forward. The idea is to have representatives from the public and private sectors who would discuss and examine the various issues related to the design and roll-out of the future AEO programme.
An engagement with various key Customs stakeholders was held on 25 September to share Customs’ plans to introduce an Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) programme in South Africa.
The AEO programme follows in the footsteps of Customs’ Preferred Trader programme which offers various benefits to compliant Customs clients. The SARS’ Preferred Trader programme, which was officially launched in May 2017, currently has 105 accredited clients who have been awarded Preferred Trader status.
The AEO programme – based on the World Customs Organisation’s SAFE Framework of Standards – requires an extra level of safety and security compliance from traders and offers additional benefits, compared to the Preferred Trader programme. It is also open to the entire Customs value-chain, as opposed to only local importers and exporters.
SARS Customs intends to pilot the AEO programme in South Africa before the end of 2019. Clients in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry – representing big businesses have been earmarked to participate in the pilot, as well as SMMEs in the Clothing and Textile Industry. SARS is also in the planning stage of engagements with its major trading partners within BRICS and the EU for the purpose of establishing Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) for its AEO Programme and intends to commence engagements within Africa as well.
At the recent stakeholder engagement session, Customs and Excise Group Executive, Rae Vivier, indicated that the AEO programme was being designed for Customs to partner with the private and public sector to improve voluntary compliance and trade facilitation in the country. She mentioned a few key points that SARS was looking at when it came to AEO, including Mutual Recognition Agreements with SACU/SADC trading partners, close cooperation with Other Government Agencies (OGAs) in South Africa to ensure the programme is recognised by all government departments, exploring modern technology such as block chain and augmenting AEO benefits in order to design a programme that would be beneficial for trade.
She also mentioned that C&E Trade Services would soon be sending a survey to Customs traders to find out what clients’ requirements are, from a trade facilitation point of view. “We need to collaborate with each other to ensure we design something for the future,” she said.
The expansion of Free Zones has been mainly driven by political decisions closely affiliated with national economic development strategies. In some countries Customs is the primary governmental authority that regulates and governs Free Zones, while in others Free Zones are governed by other authorities, with less involvement from Customs. Depending on the institutional set-up, the scope and degree of Customs control in Free Zones and the economic operations carried out there varies considerably from one Free Zone to another.
Existing literature reveals that Free Zones attract not only legitimate business but also illicit trade or other illicit activities that take advantage of the regulatory exemptions of Free Zones.
Numerous papers have outlined the risks associated with Free Zones, along with economic benefits. Most of them deal with the legality of Free Zones policies, particularly in relation to export subsidies as governed by the WTO Agreement. Several other papers have dealt with illicit activities that have been perpetrated by exploiting characteristics of Free Zones. Such illicit activities include money laundering, tax-evasion and trade in counterfeit goods or other illicit goods.
The WCO research paper deals with Customs-related aspects of Free Zones, considering both the associated benefits and risks. The risks primarily concern illicit trade that exploits key aspects of Free Zones.
Literature that focuses on risks associated with Free Zones, particularly illicit trade or other illicit activities, have several things in common. They tend to highlight the fact that supervision over cargoes/companies in Free Zones is somewhat relaxed in comparison with other parts of the national territory. The following factors have been pointed out or quoted, although details are rarely provided due to the technical nature of the topic.
Relaxed controls inside Free Zones
Insufficient Customs’ involvement in the operation of Free Zones
Ease in setting up companies inside Free Zones
Insufficient integration of Information Technology(IT) systems by governmental agencies inside Free Zones
The WCO research paper’s key observations fall in line with those outlined above. It describes the low-level involvement of Customs in monitoring cargo movement and companies’ activities inside Free Zones. This includes Customs’ low-level involvement at the establishment phase of Free Zones, at the approving companies permitted to operate in Free Zones pahse, and during the day-to-day monitoring of cargoes in Free Zones. Limited Customs’ authority inside Free Zones is also mentioned. This paper touches upon relaxed Customs procedures/controls related to Free Zones and observes that they stem from Customs’ limited involvement and limited authority inside Free Zones. These limitations, combined with insufficient integration and utilization of IT, result in a lack of the requisite data concerning cargoes inside Free Zones, and render Customs’ risk-management-based controls – conducted for the purpose of preserving security and compliance without hindering legitimate cargo flows – virtually useless.
The research paper considers the concept of ‘extraterritoriality’ concerning Free Zones, stemming from a misinterpretation of the definition of Free Zones contained in the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC), to be behind the aforementioned limited involvement by and limited authority of Customs. The definition within Annex D, Chapter 2 of the RKC does not state that Free Zones are geographically outside the Customs territory. The definition means that the Free Zone itself falls within the Customs territory. ‘Goods’ located in Free Zones are considered as being outside the Customs territory for duty/tax purposes only.
In August of 2019, both the United States and Thailand announced their plans to test blockchain applications for tracking and managing shipments. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is planning to test a blockchain application against their current system to determine how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can improve its existing processes. Thailand, on the other hand, plans to use IBM’s blockchain-based logistics platform Tradelens to improve customs processes such as data sharing.
Originally developed in a joint venture between IBM and logistics giant Maersk, Tradelens seeks to streamline processes in the global shipping industry by making the flow of information occur in real-time. The blockchain platform is reported to currently process about half of the world’s shipping data.
These moves highlight countries’ increasing interest in employing blockchain technology in their customs and border operations. The Tradelens website says its ecosystem comprises over 100 different organizations including carriers, ports, terminal operators, third-party logistics firms, and freight forwarders. More specifically, a map on the Tradelens website suggests that about 60 ports and terminals worldwide are directly integrated with TradeLens.
Elsewhere, the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union (TAXUD), which develops policies and operational systems for the European Customs Union, explored the applicability of blockchain in customs and taxation with a focus on utilizing blockchain as a notarization service.
The Union is looking into using blockchain to digitize ATA Carnet, an international customs document used in 87 countries for temporarily admitting goods duty-free. A pilot project conducted in collaboration with the International Chamber of Commerce World Chambers Federation (ICC WCF), was successfully tested in 2018.
The ICC WCF, a body of the ICC that helps facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships between ICC members, has been working with different customs authorities to develop solutions for converting ATA Carnets into electronic documents.
About 80 countries around the world have developed authorized economic operator (AEO) programs and signed a mutual recognition agreement (MRA), all in an effort to streamline cargo security. Under such arrangements, individual countries identify and approve trustworthy logistics operators that pose a low risk in security and share the approval information with participating countries.
This allows countries to piggyback on the security checks of other countries to make customs operations more efficient. However, a few problems have arisen with the program.
There are information leakage risks associated with the conventional way of sharing AEO data by email. While a sender’s email server may be encrypted, there is no guarantee that the receiver’s is as well, and vice versa.
Data sharing is not real-time, but monthly or at an agreed-upon interval. This limits the speed at which information on new or suspended AEOs can reach all participants.
To avoid the aforementioned problems as well as achieve additional time and cost savings on security procedures, customs administrations in Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica are working with the Inter-American Development Bank to develop a blockchain application called Cadena.
The move by governments around the world to employ blockchain to improve cross-border trade marks a step toward paperless customs processes, which originally began with the digitization of information flows by making trade-related data and documents available and exchangeable electronically. For all the improvements they’ve brought to paper-heavy processes, traditional electronic data exchange systems still face the challenges of authenticity and the unavailability of real-time data exchange.
For instance, the Netherlands and China launched a five-year project in 2010 to test the applicability of electronic sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certificates. A World Economic Forum white paper titled “Paperless Trading: How Does It Impact the Trade System?” noted that concerns around the authenticity of the electronic documents arose. This necessitated the adoption of electronic signature systems and a whole new legal framework that recognized the electronic signature.
Still, the entire process requires longer procedures and the introduction of new types of intermediaries — e-signature providers, for instance. Moreover, low-income countries, the trade costs of which remain high compared to high-income countries as according to World Bank data, may not have the budget to implement several new systems for data and document digitization. They still need to invest in better customs infrastructure.
Blockchain, on the other hand, if implemented in border protection, will ensure real-time availability and immutability of customs documents while saving considerable costs on excessive paperwork.
Researchers in France have shown that genuine Bordeaux wines can be distinguished from fakes by testing the minute quantities of lead in their composition.
Wines and indeed other foods and beverages tend to have low levels of lead, resulting from environmental contamination from natural or man-made sources that is taken up into plants.
Scientists have discovered that the amounts and ratios of elemental lead and lead isotopes can serve as a “fingerprint” that can determine the geographic origin of a wine – and be used to tell a genuine vintage from a knock-off.
Levels of lead in the atmosphere have been falling dramatically in recent decades since the use of lead as an additive in fuel has been banned. It’s been known for many years that lead isotope ratios can be used to identify the origin of wines as well as other foodstuffs such as milk powder.
The latest study puts the technique through its paces for a specific task – distinguishing genuine Bordeaux wines produced by prestigious vineyards over the last 50 years from wines bottled in China between 1998 and 2009.
The researchers took 43 authentic red and white Bordeaux wines from the winemaking estates of Médoc, Graves and Libourne, and ran a comparison with 17 red wines sourced from China, including 14 labeled as ‘Bordeaux’ as well as three genuine Chinese brands. The suspect bottles were selected because they either had spelling mistakes in the names of the known wineries or claimed to be from non-existing producers.
They found that the levels of lead in the genuine French wines reflected the reduction in environmental lead seen since 1969 – the date of the earliest bottle tested – and all fell within recognised safe levels.
The suspect wines had levels that overlapped with those from the French group, but tended to have isotopes suggesting more of the lead came from man-made sources such as leaded gasoline than natural, background sources.
Moreover, a subgroup analysis for four suspicious samples said to be produced in Pauillac in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 were compared directly with genuine wines from that period and found to have different isotopic profiles.
“Despite of limited number of genuine and suspicious samples, this test give a particularly compelling example of [lead] isotopes application to authenticity issues,” write the authors.
There’s an obvious limitation to the approach of course.
“If suspicious wines … would be produced in the same region as authentic, a clear identification by lead isotopes alone may be significantly hampered or even impossible,” they note.