Spot the fake – addressing the risk of global food fraud

9th July 2015
From Chris Morrison

Reports of food fraud in the mainstream media once seemed to be few and far between, but are now a regular occurrence. From targeting tobacco and alcohol, criminal gangs and fraudsters have been realising the lucrative opportunities of food products, which have been helped by increasing complexity in the global supply chain. From burgers including offalthrough to prawns being adulterated with water, the scope of food fraud is now massive and it seems any product can be affected. The industry can tackle the problem by creating greater transparency to assess the threat and take the right steps to minimise the risks.

Understanding the scale of the problem

From the much-publicised horsemeat scandal in 2013 through to Polish ham being labelled as Italian, food fraud is now a global issue. It resonates strongly with consumers across borders, despite significantly different local preferences and market conditions. Increasing scarcity of raw ingredients and greater complexity in the supply chain is creating the perfect conditions for food fraudsters to compromise food products, and the industry needs to respond in kind. While the industry has worked towards increasing testing following the horsemeat crisis, this is only part of the answer. Testing needs to go hand in hand with better sharing of information to be effective. For example, in the case of the so-called “nuts and spices crisis”, it emerged that recalled cumin did not test positively for almond protein and the test was picking up a different plant protein, mahaleb.

Think like a criminal

In getting at the heart of the problem, retailers and manufacturers can also benefit from‘thinking like a criminal’: anticipating the actions criminals might take, then putting the right countermeasures in place to protect food products’ integrity. Criminals will tend to go for the easiest targets, i.e. those products that are easier to adulterate or fake, so these should be looked at first. Criminals are also using increasingly sophisticated methods, so complete transparency into the sourcing of ingredients is now an essential tool to retain consumer trust and minimise risk. There are also occasions when food fraud can be willingly conducted by companies trusted by consumers, as a shocking recent case of fraud by a leading rice cake manufacturer shows. The food supply chain needs complete ‘farm to fork’ transparency – understanding where ingredients are coming from, where they’re being sourced and  manufactured, where finished products are being processed further and how the product is moving through the supply chain. In addition to identifying the scope of existing problems, this can also help food producers understand the full financial impact of the risk they are exposed to, as well as better detect problems in the future.

Prevention is better than cure

Verifying suppliers’ credentials can encourage trust in the supply chain; giving peace of mind that suppliers have been regularly audited and held to the necessary food production standards. Closer collaboration across international borders can also ensure that fraudsters cannot perpetrate the same fraud in different countries, instead being spotted sooner and ultimately held accountable for their actions.

The role of Europol and other international bodies should not be understated, but the industry can do a lot to reduce the risk it faces itself. Closer collaboration, complete transparency and greater certification and accountability can ensure the industry meets the challenge of food fraud head on.

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