If you are travelling abroad this summer, you may go through customs checks. To apply the law, customs officials must check the contents of any goods and identify any illicit products, such as narcotics. This is the job of customs labs, which conducted over 436,000 analyses in France in 2012. From July 10-12, 2013, the fifth seminar of European customs chemists took place in Paris. Marie-Josée Parent, deputy head of the customs laboratory of Île-de-France, reviewed with us the new societal issues reflected in customs analyses.
This article is a translation of “Les douaniers scientifiques : identifier les produits frauduleux, détecter les futurs stupéfiants” by Timothée Froelich.
With over 20 new psychoactive or medicinal substances discovered in 2012,
customs labs must adapt quickly in order to detect them efficiently.
Sources: Flickr/Adam Scotti
What is the goal of customs laboratories?
Marie-Josée Parent: The first job of customs scientists is to analyze the products in order to apply the relevant customs regulations. From the moment a new fraud is detected, laboratories have to implement a new type of test within a few days. New techniques need to be developed in order to be operational as fast as possible. Today, with the arrival of new substances branded as drugs, more and more precise guidelines, on the composition of food products in particular, and ever increasing security requirements, laboratories need to organize themselves. The customs officials’ work must adapt to changes in society.
How have you adapted your analytical techniques to these new demands?
M-J P: The analysis equipment that was used only from time to time a few years ago is now applied in every laboratory to respond to this evolution. The analyses of gas or liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry [techniques to identity and quantify the substances] have become quite routine. Heavy tools like the high-tech NMR spectroscope, [which exploits the magnetic resonance of atomic nuclei], are now almost systematically used in customs labs to identify certain substances not detectable with mass spectrometry.
The techniques of gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry
help customs officials to separate components before analyzing them.
Sources: Flickr/ADD Photography
Concerning food products in particular, customs services have to find ever more innovative solutions to identify transformed products. The seminar in Paris was a good opportunity to present a technique identifying fish species by DNA sequencing, put into practice by the customs laboratory of Marseille, in particular. This technique is the only way to trace the species of fish when they are delivered in pieces. Other techniques practiced in the customs laboratory of Bordeaux allow for the certification of the origin and the vintage of wines using isotopic methods.
What is the biggest issue today in terms of customs analysis?
M-J P: There is a real public health issue that consists of detecting the illegal importation of drugs or psychoactive substances created to get around drug regulations. Customs are the first point of entry for these new goods and laboratories have to keep adapting to be able to identify them. By the same reasoning, identifying fraudulent medicinal products is a major issue. With increasing advertising and exchanges on the internet, buying these products has become quite common and, therefore, they are more and more frequently found into circulation.
How do customs laboratories coordinate their work?
M-J P: In the field of new psychoactive and medicinal substances, customs offices and universities collaborate on one-time special cases. For instance, a successful collaboration with the University of Toulouse in France helped us identify a medicinal substance distributed on the parallel market that was still at the experimental stage.
A platform at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, in Lisbon allows customs scientists to exchange their results. Seminars like the Customs Chemists’ constitute essential opportunities to share everyone’s experiences, too. Informal presentations and encounters make it easier to establish future collaborations when such cases arise.