Combating Food Fraud through Effective Collaboration #GFSC2015

Food Fraud is arguably one of the most frustrating issues facing the food industry, featuring at the top of many agendas at this week’s Global Food Safety Conference. International leaders from governments and corporations agreed that, while the vast majority of food is exceptionally safe, they are increasingly confronted with new challenges caused by food fraud as they seek to protect public health, economic development and corporate reputation.  

 Food fraud is the deliberate adulteration of food that can potentially result in harm to consumers. While food-borne diseases are usually unintentional, food fraud arises from a human induced, intentional act, motivated by commercial gain, and the most effective way to tackle this global issue is through effective partnerships. The impact of food fraud on consumer health cannot be understated, and this can be tackled through effective collaborations.

The increasing internationalisation of food supply chains brings many advantages for consumers but it generates extra complexity for those in charge of protecting our food from criminal intent on flaunting the rules. Globalisation has yielded countless advantages to businesses and consumers but it is increasingly difficult to trace the origins of individual ingredients and products. The complex journey “from farm to fork” means that ingredients are passing through multiple channels and diverse geographies before they reach the final consumer. The European horse meat scandal in 2013 painted a stark reminder of the loopholes that can exist within our global food systems. Originating from one country in Europe and fuelled by a demand for cheap and accessible meat, the incorrectly labelled horsemeat spread quickly to other parts of the region and then made its way undetected to Asia, including China, Singapore and Japan. The global surveillance system was caught unawares because nobody was looking for this type of fraud.

While food fraud incidents have only recently gained large-scale public interest, experts within the food industry have been working on solutions for many years. Food manufacturing companies have put in place complex and sophisticated measures to protect the traceability and integrity of their ingredients and they have increased surveillance of their supply chains by reinforcing their risk management processes with enhancements to existing controls.

Food fraud, however, continues to remain a complex and expensive problem. It is estimated that the cost to the global food industry due to food fraud is between $30-40 billion. 

Furthermore, the cost of a single food fraud incident can cost a company about 2% to 15% of its annual revenue and some of this cost is inevitably passed on to the consumer. The food industry is not bearing the brunt alone. Governments are stepping up to the increased calls for action from public and international media. Few countries have escaped this spotlight and regulators in China and Taiwan have found themselves at the centre of the debate in Asia.

Independent experts are now calling for a step change in the level of collaboration between public and private actors who find themselves at the forefront of this challenge. A coordinated effort by governments and the food industry are proving to be the only long term solution to tackling this problem effectively.

Food Safety External Affairs & Strategic Projects Director at Danone and a member of the board for Global Food Safety Initiatives (GFSI) and Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere (SSAFE), Ms Petra Wissenburg agreed that there are a number of potential areas for collaboration between the public and private sectors to tackle the global food fraud challenge together.

“As the supply chain gets more complex, we see increasing opportunities for unscrupulous behaviour. While small in number, these individuals will continue to operate illegally below our radar of detection unless we put our heads together to outthink their strategies and stay several steps ahead of them,” she said.

Food companies are developing ever more sophisticated scientific approaches and advanced technologies to prevent unintentional contamination by biological and chemical vectors. We must now take a quantum leap in our thinking. Governments, for their part, have tailor-made regulatory systems with the ability to enforce safety standards at a very strict level. Together, we need to improve our collective nimbleness to identify vulnerabilities and develop new methods to detect and protect our food systems from the threat of deliberate adulteration.

“More than ever, knowledge and best practice sharing – done in a transparent and non-competitive way between companies and regulators – will enable us to share intelligence, to ‘think like a criminal’ and thus to discover the most effective solutions to the food fraud challenge.”

“In Asia, dialogues amongst the food industry and regulators will play an important role in fostering a better understanding of underlying cultural, political, economic and social issues that contribute to food fraud,” Ms Wissenburg said.

“Government and companies have their own unique expertise to bring to the table. As the food fraud challenge gets more complex, building on each other’s strengths and capabilities will empower us to be greater than the sum of our parts and explore innovative ways to prevent harmful acts and ensure safe food for consumers,” she concluded.

Read more about the Global Food Safety Conference here.

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