Research points to low forensic capacity to tackle timber fraud in U.S.

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  • New research has found that more than 60 percent of a sample of 73 wood products in the U.S. had misrepresented or fraudulent species labels.
  • While not “statistically representative,” the findings do indicate that improperly labeled wood is a concern in the U.S.
  • The study also found that the U.S. does not have the capacity for forensic wood anatomy identification to address this issue.

A recent study suggests that a lot of fraudulently or inaccurately identified wood turns up in products on the U.S. market and that inspectors’ capacity to root out these issues is lacking.

“We know some wood products are intentionally mislabeled, sometimes to pass off lower-value wood for more expensive varieties, and sometimes to cover up the fact that it was illegally sourced,” Amy Smith, deputy director of forests with the WWF and a co-author of the study, said in a statement shared with Mongabay. “We wanted to know how often this fraud occurs, and our study indicates it could be alarmingly common.”

The first-ever research, published July 25 in the journal PLOS ONE, found that more than 60 percent of the 73 types of wood products tested, including furniture, musical instruments and other common products, had some evidence of fraud or misrepresentation. In more than half of the samples, the wood was labeled with the wrong species. About 20 percent of the samples had the wrong “product type” label — for example, that the item was solid wood when, in reality, it was a veneer fastened to non-solid wood like particleboard.

Alex Wiedenhoeft uses an extremely sharp knife to cut thin strips of wood. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

Though some of these issues could be chalked up to “honest mistakes,” these levels of misrepresentation indicate the problem is “non-trivial” in the U.S. timber market, the authors write.

But Alex Wiedenhoeft, a research botanist with the U.S. Forest Service and the lead author of the study, said the team did not select the products they tested randomly. Nor did they identify the trees used in enough individual pieces to suggest that more than half of the products available are somehow tainted.

As such, the results of the study don’t “represent a statistically representative slice, because the scale of doing that is beyond the scope of any laboratory that I’m aware of,” said Wiedenhoeft, who is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

What it does indicate is that laboratory forensic testing, at least at the detailed level in this research, can only be a part of the solution to ridding the market of mislabeled wood and goods.

Wiedenhoeft uses a microscope to examine a wood sample. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.
Wiedenhoeft uses a microscope to examine a wood sample. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

“One of the things that we’ve documented here is that we don’t have the human capacity” for large-scale forensic testing, Wiedenhoeft told Mongabay.

The team used lists of “high-risk” tree species compiled by WWF and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, to select products containing those species. They then examined the cellular structure of the wood using a hand lens or a microscope, complementing this “wood anatomy” investigation with ultraviolet fluorescence scans and water and alcohol extracts. Using a set of keys, databases and comparisons to on-hand collections, the researchers then identified the species of wood in each product.

A survey of experts in wood anatomy around the country demonstrated that there’s limited capacity for forensic wood anatomy in the U.S., given that the country imports more than $51 billion worth of timber products every year. That doesn’t mean that forensic testing shouldn’t be part of the arsenal aimed at stopping fraudulent labeling or illegal logging alongside traditional law enforcement, Wiedenhoeft said.

These slivers of wood are carefully stored and cataloged for cross-reference. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.
These slivers of wood are carefully stored and cataloged for cross-reference. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

“I don’t think our goal is likely to be 100 percent inspection,” he said, “but I don’t think that means that this stuff has no way to make a difference.”

He explained that field inspectors, perhaps at ports or working in company warehouses, could learn the basics of wood anatomy well enough to discern whether a type of wood hasn’t been appropriately labeled or may come from a suspicious source in many cases. Even this “field level screening” could be a deterrent to fraud and misrepresentation, Wiedenhoeft added.

He and his colleagues are working on an imaging device that inspectors can use in the field with a laptop computer that harnesses the power of mathematical models to identify wood species within about a second. The models the device uses are context- and location-dependent, so the one they’ve recently deployed in Ghana has to sort through just the species typically found there.

Still, Wiedenhoeft said, “We’re pretty excited about that.”

The Center for Wood Anatomy Research contains the world’s largest research wood collection, with samples from all over the planet. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.
The Center for Wood Anatomy Research contains the world’s largest research wood collection, with samples from all over the planet. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

WWF’s Smith said the research demonstrates the U.S.’s role in the connected issues of deforestation and illegal logging, which are leading to the destruction of forests around the world.

“It sounds like a far-off problem, but this illegal wood ends up in US-based products we buy and use every day,” Smith said. The researchers pointed out that more than one-fifth of imported wood and wood furniture ends up in the U.S., double what China, the next country on the list, imports.

“That means it’s our responsibility as consumers to demand legally and responsibly sourced forest products,” she said.

Wiedenhoeft uses a wet paintbrush to move the delicate sample to a slide for examination. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.
Wiedenhoeft uses a wet paintbrush to move the delicate sample to a slide for examination. Image © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

Smith recommends that consumers buy products that carry the Forest Stewardship Council certification label, as well as “letting businesses and policy makers know that enforcement of our import laws — plus investment in technologies to detect fraud.”

That could potentially decrease the chances that the wood products people buy in the U.S. are improperly or fraudulently labeled. But the authors also caution that “as yet we have no scholarly data to support the reliability of botanical claims or product-type claims in products from these systems.”

Banner image of U.S. Forest Service forensics lab team sample drawers © James Schnepf/WWF-US.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation:

Wiedenhoeft, A. C., Simeone, J., Smith, A., Parker-Forney, M., Soares, R., & Fishman, A. (2019). Fraud and misrepresentation in retail forest products exceeds U.S. forensic wood science capacity. PLOS ONE, 14(7), e0219917. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219917

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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