Overview identifies difficulties in preventing food fraud
Barriers to tackling food fraud include the cost and capability of authenticity testing, a changing mode of operation, and a complex regulatory system, according to experts.
Contributors to an overview about food fraud said evidence suggests it continues to be an issue in the global supply chain. Prevention strategies include scientific analysis to test food authenticity, supply chain risk assessment, and data-led strategies such as intelligence gathering.
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is the U.K. Parliament’s in-house source of scientific information. To produce POSTnotes, advisers and fellows talk to stakeholders from industry, government and academia. The aim is to provide MPs and peers with an overview of food fraud including potential impacts in the UK.
Input into the document came from representatives of the Food Standards Agency, Fera Science, University of Manchester and Government Chemist, LGC as well as Dr. John Spink of Michigan State University and professor Chris Elliott from Queen’s University Belfast.
Tackling the issue and public health risk
Examples of high-profile cases include adding undeclared horsemeat to a variety of beef products in the U.K. and Europe in 2013, and presence of ingredients such as olive or myrtle leaves in about one in four U.K. samples of oregano in 2016.
Barriers to combatting the problem include the lack of a globally agreed definition making it difficult to assess the scale of the problem and generate statistics on its impact.
Many authenticity testing methods require specialist instrumentation and skills, which can be costly for industry and local authorities and the enforcement system for food laws is split between multiple bodies, including local authorities and regulators.
While food fraud has a financial and reputational impact on businesses, it may also pose a health risk by exposing consumers to toxic chemicals, pathogenic bacteria, or mislabeled allergens. One example cited in the briefing comes from 2016 when a restaurant owner was sent to prison after substituting almond powder with mixed nut powder containing peanuts, resulting in a customer’s death.
Foods often reported to be adulterated include herbs and spices, coffee, seafood, honey and olive oil. However, there are concerns fraudsters may target foods subject to less rigorous controls, making fraud harder to detect.
Between April 2018 and March 2019, 4,996 food samples were tested for composition or labelling on behalf of local authorities in England compared with 24,855 samples tested for hygiene.
Food fraud typically involves substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, ingredients, or food packaging. It affects consumer choice and confidence and could lead to consumption of foods that are normally restricted for ethical or religious reasons.
It is often undetectable except by scientific analysis. Testing can be targeted, where the analysis looks for a pre-defined characteristic, such as a specific adulterant or section of DNA, or non-targeted where multiple measurements of a sample are taken using a variety of techniques to get a sample’s chemical fingerprint.
Leaving the EU and trade deals
Each food business has its own approach to testing authenticity of products. Retailers often have contractual agreements with suppliers that require them to do authenticity testing of their ingredients. Large retailers, such as supermarkets, typically have routine monitoring programs. The rise of online shopping has also made tracing food supply chains more difficult.
The FSA has said there is no evidence to suggest the U.K. will be more at risk from food crime after leaving the European Union. However, some experts have said the EU’s exit may impact the U.K.’s vulnerability to food fraud and is a risk to the safety and security of the food supply.
Concerns relate to checks on food imports, the U.K.’s food testing capacity and the extent of access to EU food fraud intelligence networks. After the transition period, foods imported into the U.K. will need to be checked and processed at the border.
Future trade deals may require adoption of new tests and standards for food and drink. Brexit may also cause sudden price increases and supply volatility, creating vulnerabilities to fraud.
The number of official laboratories for testing has declined in the U.K. during the past 10 years and stakeholders have questioned whether the U.K. would have the same level of access to EU labs for specialist testing.