In February 2013, non-declared horsemeat in beef products triggered a mayor scandal in Europe. Risk assessments concluded that there were not any public health risks. On April 24th 2015, a horsemeat scandal hit Europe anew: only this time, it did not involve a labelling issue but meat that was not approved for human consumption, thus posing an imminent threat to public health. Although the two events are not connected, they highlight two important issues: food fraud is on the rise and it can (though not necessarily) pose public health risks.
Food Fraud: What are we talking about?
Since the 2013 incidents, food fraud came to the fore and caught attention throughout governments, business and the public at large. Food fraud is ‘a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product, for economic gain’. Differentiating cause (or motivation) and effect, food fraud is intended in its cause to gain economically, though its potential food safety risks as effect are not intended. Food safety risks on the other hand are unintended in their cause.
Why is it an issue?
For a long time, food fraud has been understood only in economic terms. Yet, as the case of melamine-tainted milk in China showed, the changed composition of food might well constitute health risks. With globalized and complex supply chains, concentration of buying groups that push prices downwards the supply chain, and refrigerated transport and storage allowing to store large quantities, changes and opportunities for fraud become more feasible and economically more promising. Estimates go as far as a yearly economic loss of 49 billion $ worldwide and up to 10% of U.S. food to be adulterant. Yet, in certain cases, the risk from food fraud may have more severe implications for public health than ‘ordinary’ food safety issues because contaminants might occur that are less likely to be tested for as they do not feature in conventional food products (e.g. the industrial plasticizer melamine). As food fraud has different causes from food safety, standard testing routines do not function proper: food protection systems are not build to check against myriads of possibly harmful adulterants. The effects might be threefold: direct by adding toxic or even lethal ingredients, indirect by adding ingredients which harmful components will build-up over a long-term exposure or by omission of beneficial ingredients, or technical by declaring wrong product content or origin provoking e.g. allergic reactions.
Which products are most concerned?
Food fraud has still to be investigated in depth. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention provides a database with both scholarly reports and sources by the media, governments and trade associations between 1980 and 2010. They generated 1,305 records (1,054 of which are scholarly) with 361 distinct ingredients concerned. The top seven ingredients account for more than half of all scholarly records: olive oil (167 records), milk (143), honey (71), Saffron (57), Orange juice (43), Coffee (34), apple juice (20). While 42% of media coverage dealt with natural flavourings and seafood, these cases only accounted for 6% of scholarly records. Cases concerning juices and coffee are to the contrary absent from the media. Thus, media coverage displays a varying attention than scholarly work hinting at differences in public perception. 95% of total records concern the replacement of authentic material with usually less expensive or better accessible substitutes (e.g. substituting olive oil by hazelnut oil). The addition or removal of substances account for less than 5% respectively less than 1% of records.
What can companies do to mitigate food fraud?
A centrepiece of prevention is thorough knowledge of the supply chain from end to end. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), an industry-driven global foundation which provides guidance on food safety management systems, identifies in its 2014 position paper ‘On Mitigating the Public Health Risk of Food Fraud’ economically motivated fraud as a mayor emerging risk. It recommends to take two fundamental steps: (1) to carry out a ‘food fraud vulnerability assessment’, identifying possible hazard points along the supply chain, and (2) to draft a control plan tackling the vulnerabilities. From 2016 onwards these steps will become part of GFSI’s Guidance Document (which provides a benchmarking tool establishing equivalence between food protection schemes) requiring certification and accreditation schemes to incorporate both in order to be recognized by GFSI. ‘Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere’ (SSAFE), another industry driven non-profit organization, currently develops the ‘Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment Tool’ in cooperation with the RIKILT research institute at the University of Wageningen, a mayor partner of the Dutch government concerning food safety. The tool shall advice companies on how to assess its vulnerability and on how to establish control plans in line with GFSI's recommendations. The e-tool will be available (free of charge) from July 2015 onwards. Furthermore, the ‘Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks', commissioned by the UK government after the horsemeat scandal, stresses the importance of company culture and anonymous and easy-to-use instruments for whistle-blowing, as this is one of the top instruments to detect fraud.
How to test for adulterate food?
Two approaches prevail in analytics for fraudulent food: firstly, testing for the absence of specific adulterants, which is a limited approach as one cannot test for unknown or non-expected adulterants; secondly, a compendial strategy checking for the identity, authenticity, and purity of a food ingredient, which is usually more cost-efficient. Yet, this approach is somewhat limited as it can only discover higher levels of adulterants. Furthermore, this method should be used as close as possible to the stage of the supply chain where the fraud occurs, as at this stage the amount of adulterant is likely to have its highest level. The above-mentioned database also records analytical detection methods.
The way forward
Food fraud is an emerging risk, which constitutes not only an economic but a food safety concern. Transparency, traceability and information sharing are already becoming mayor topics in mitigating fraudulent practices. Approaches how to successfully deal with the vulnerability of food chains are still under development. How food safety regulation is currently dealing with these challenges in the EU, USA and China will be discussed in the following parts of this short series.