Food Fraud is a Crime

The increasing internationalisation of food supply systems brings many advantages for consumers, but it also generates extra complexity for those in charge of protecting our food from criminal intent, challenging the very integrity of these systems.

As the world comes face-to-face with major challenges to food supply and quality as a result of rising population and declining resources, the global food supply system has also become unbelievably complicated. We do not know exactly where our food comes from; and when the food system breaks down, a scandal comes to light.

While international leaders from governments and corporations agree that 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 and adulteration have come under the spotlight in recent years, with adulterated, mislabelled or misrepresented foods hitting headlines around the world. From horsemeat masquerading as beef, through to harmful additives being added to milk product, to resin rice pearls – food fraud is a growing challenge faced by industry and food safety regulators.

Food fraud, as defined by Professor Chris Elliott, Director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, “is the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food for economic gain.”

Speaking at the opening of Food Science Asia 2015, which took place in Singapore recently, Professor Elliott, who led the independent review of Britain’s food system following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, discussed the challenges to the integrity of global food supply systems.

“Contamination of food happens accidentally or deliberately; and the latter has gained interest as a major challenge to the integrity of food due to the risks that emerge as a result,” he said.

According to Professor Elliott, this fraudulent practice becomes a ‘food crime’ when it no longer involves random acts by fraudsters but is carried out by organised criminal gangs. This can become an intricate web of multinational conspiracy, as in the case of the horsemeat scandal that involved different countries across Europe.

“Consumers’ biggest fear in relation to food fraud are the potential health risks, low quality nutrition, wasted money and the feeling of being cheated. On the other hand, businesses are letting customers down, suffering from reputational damage and incurring financial losses. In some cases, they end up closing business,” said Professor Elliott.

Experts within the food industry have been working on solutions to mitigate food fraud over the past years. Cross-food industry collaborations have developed complex and sophisticated measures to protect the traceability and integrity of food products, packaging and ingredients; and food companies have increased surveillance of their supply chains by reinforcing risk management processes with enhancements to existing controls.

Science is helping deliver innovative solutions to accurately detect food fraud. Some of the more advanced and emerging techniques include food-fingerprinting through spectroscopy, use of biomarkers to differentiate one commodity from another through the process of metabolomics, and comparing food species through bioinformatics.

Food testing tools, procedures and techniques are continuously being developed, validated and verified, and standards are being harmonised. But experts agree that the most effective way to tackle this global issue is through effective partnerships.

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.

Petra Wissenburg, Food Safety External Affairs and Strategic Projects Director at Danone and Co-Chair of the FIA Food Safety Steering Group, agreed that collaboration between the public and private sectors is crucial to tackle the global food fraud challenge.

“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 protect the consumer from the impacts of fraudulent activities” she said.

“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. 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 to explore innovative ways to prevent harmful acts and ensure safe food for consumers,” Ms Wissenburg concluded.