Supply Chain Sleuths: Partnership Helps Preserve Integrity of Certified Forest Products

Recent action by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) to suspend a major charcoal producer in Europe is one outcome of the FSC and Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) partnership. This collaboration aims at using forensic wood science to investigate supply chainsAlex C. Wiedenhoeft, Research Botanist and Team Leader in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR), has led the CWAR side of a multi-year, award-winning research cooperation between FSC and FPL. Wiedenhoeft and his team conducted the forensic analysis of the contested charcoal.

Specimens of lump charcoal displayed on a specimen submission form.

At issue was whether charcoal appearing on the retail market with the FSC label was in fact sourced from FSC-certified forests.  “Working with investigators within the FSC supply chain integrity team, our forensic results about the botanical origin of the charcoal showed that the species composition of the charcoal was or was not consistent with the species claim,” said Wiedenhoeft.  “As with most forensic applications of botany, the bulk of the work is done by the real-world investigators, whether law enforcement or industrial auditors. Forensic wood science steps in at the evidence analysis phase to give the investigators solid data to inform their investigation.”

In 2018, Wiedenhoeft and his team have identified dozens and dozens of bags of charcoal each with five to 50 or more pieces of charcoal, including lump charcoal from solid wood and briquettes.  “All charcoal identification is challenging,” says Wiedenhoeft, “But identifying briquettes is much, much more difficult.”  The thin slices of wood that Wiedenhoeft and his team would use to identify normal wood cannot be made from specimens of charcoal. Instead, they have to fracture the charcoal to expose the preserved wood anatomy, and then view that structure with a hand lens and a microscope.

“It’s messy work,” says Wiedenhoeft.  “We set up a charcoal identification station at our conference table to keep the dust out of the laboratory spaces.”

Side-by-side comparison of sound wood (left) and charcoal (right). The top pair are species in the white oak group. The bottom pair are species of birch. Note that in both woods, the cells in the charcoal often show some shrinkage, but the overall anatomical pattern remains. Subcellular, microscopic detail is also preserved (not shown here). Charcoal fractures readily (see the cracks in the lower right image) and cannot easily be prepared for traditional wood identification methods.

Despite the challenge and the mess, Wiedenhoeft is gratified that the FPL-FSC cooperation is making an impact, and that FSC wants to continue the cooperation: dialogue about the scope of work for 2019 has already begun. In addition to the planned forensic evaluation of more charcoal and of a wide range of other FSC-certified forest products, Wiedenhoeft is spearheading the preparation of a scholarly paper highlighting the results of the cooperation to date.

“It is exciting to have years of data on thousands of specimens from hundreds and hundreds of products,” says Wiedenhoeft. “Being able to frame the utility of this kind of research in real-world terms with real-world impact is unique, and will make a pretty exciting research paper.”