Thinking Like a Criminal to Tackle Food Fraud

Food fraud and adulteration have come under the spotlight in recent years with adulterated, mislabelled or misrepresented foods hitting headlines around the world. From horse-meat masquerading as beef through to harmful additives being added to milk products, food fraud is a growing challenge faced by industry and food safety regulators.

President and Principal Advisor Shantalla Inc. John Keogh said food fraud is a complex issue that requires innovative thinking and multi-faceted solutions.

“Food fraud is an intentional act, motivated by commercial gain. It’s a criminal activity – and these criminals are becoming increasingly savvy in the methods they’re using to ‘beat the system’.

“They’re targeting vulnerable food products or those that are easier to counterfeit or fake and they’re using increasingly sophisticated methods to do so,” he said.

“We need to try and anticipate how fraud and adulteration might happen and prevent it – or catch it when it occurs,” said Mr Keogh.

“This is where ‘thinking like a criminal’ comes in. In a similar way to how financial institutions have implemented anti-hacking and anti-fraud measures, understanding how these criminals operate will hopefully allow us to anticipate their next move and potentially stop an incident before it can occur.”

Mr Keogh added that with today’s increasingly complex and fragmented supply chains there are some fundamentals that companies need to put in place to ensure they are protecting the integrity of the food they produce.

“It all starts with a brand owner deciding that supply chain transparency is important as an enabler of consumer trust,” he said.

One of the tools that helps to improve supply chain transparency is end-to-end mapping.

“This means understanding where ingredients are coming from, where they’re being sourced, manufactured, where finished products are being processed further and how the product is moving through the supply chain. This process should allow manufacturers to effectively visualise their risks and implement risk management and vulnerability assessments to better detect them.”

Another key enabler of transparency is real-time supply chain visibility.

“Visibility is essentially knowing where products are, where they have been and where they are going in real-time,” says Mr Keogh.

Global supply chain standard Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) is one tool that can be used to achieve supply chain visibility. Developed by GS1 – a not-for-profit, international organisation that develops and maintains standards for supply and demand chains across multiple sectors – EPCIS is a standard that enables trading partners to share information about the physical movement and status of products as they travel throughout the supply chain.

“In practical terms, if a shipment between two locations that usually takes two hours suddenly takes eight hours – EPCIS can provide alerts if the shipment was not received during the allotted time slots,” says Mr Keogh.

Aside from having the right technology, ensuring that people across the supply chain have the right capabilities and knowledge to guarantee the chain of custody remains intact is also essential – and this can be a key challenge.

“You have the willing and the able, and the willing and the unable,” Mr Keogh said.

“The willing and the able are the big companies with the resources and ability to train and develop their people and their systems to ensure they’re able to protect the integrity of their supply chain and verify the authenticity of their food products at any point in the supply chain.

“The willing and unable are the smaller companies who understand the risks and are willing to make the necessary changes to strengthen their supply chains but they don’t have the resources to make this happen. They’re the ones that we need to help through effective capacity building.”

In order to do this, Mr Keogh emphasised a collaborative approach is needed.

“Working together in effective public-private partnerships will enable us to upskill all players across the supply chain which ultimately helps to minimise the risk of food fraud and food adulteration occurring. The public and private sectors have significant resources, tools, knowledge and wisdom in tackling food fraud and these resources are much more effective if they’re shared through collaboration.”

We cannot forget the critical role that enforcement agencies such as Europol, Interpol and national agencies also play said Mr Keogh.

“They must be included in the dialogue and intelligence sharing. Enforcement agencies need to gather evidence that can hold up in court in order to dismantle organised crime. The joint Interpol/Europol operation Opson is a great example of recurring collaboration in the fight against food fraud,” he said.

But it’s not just looking at how the public and private sectors can work together. Mr Keogh said that the complexity and scale of food fraud means this collaboration needs to happen across borders.

“Today’s globalised food supply chain means sharing this knowledge in one market may help to prevent food fraud in another.”

He commented that Manuka honey – which originates from New Zealand – is a good example of how international collaboration can help to tackle food fraud.

“We know that more Manuka honey is sold than is produced in New Zealand – so it’s clear that counterfeit product is being produced and sold to unsuspecting consumers.

“To help reduce the risk of this happening or growing further, the genuine product’s forensic and scientific properties need to be defined in New Zealand and its forensic fingerprint (per batch) shared with reference databases around the world so counterfeit product can be more easily detected using specific test procedures,” he said.

Mr Keogh concluded that food fraud is a complex challenge.

“We need to take a collaborative and innovative approach to tackling this constantly evolving challenge. This means putting ourselves in the shoes of those doing the adulteration and using scientific expertise to identify and vigilantly monitor the next generation of adulteration and food fraud risks.”

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