New horsemeat incidents as study highlights beef fraud risks

Two seizures of mislabelled horsemeat in Europe in recent weeks highlight the vulnerability in the food supply chain, which some believe could be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The fraudulent shipments – discovered in the Netherlands and Denmark – include one intended for unauthorised placing on the market, according to a report in The Grocer, citing data from the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

The incidents come as a study of the beef supply chain in the EU between 1997 and 2017 – led by Prof Chris Elliott of Queen's University Belfast – revealed that out 413 cases of fraud reported during that period, almost 43 per cent involved cases of counterfeiting.

Prof Elliott led the UK’s investigation into the horsemeat scandal of 2013, which resulted in mass product recalls across Europe after undeclared horsemeat was found in beef products.

The new study published in the journal Food Control took data from the RASFF system and HorizonScan, a database of food integrity incidents operated by the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) in the UK. It looked at the type of fraud, where in the supply chain it took place, and where it was reported, as well as the origin of the food.

Counterfeiting – which the study defines as beef products that have been illegally produced with the intention of mimicking or copying a legitimate counterpart – was the most common type of fraud encountered at 43 per cent of the total, but was only fractionally ahead of adulteration.

The category included products made on unlicensed premises, without inspection, or with fake or missing documentation – such as entry certificates or health certificates – which point to illegal production. Most of the identified cases involved production with inspection and/or fraudulent documentation.

dulteration – defined as the addition of unknown substances to a product and/or the dilution of a product – was the modus operandi in 41.9 per cent of cases, and included mainly incidents in which one species was substituted for or diluted with another.

Diversion – referring to illegally imported or exported foods - accounted for 9.4 per cent, with tampering fraud such as faking labels or altering expiry dates made up 5.8 per cent of the total.

The researchers also looked at which areas in the food supply chain were most vulnerable to fraud, and concluded that the weakest link was primary processing plants, which were involved in 36.4 per cent of incidents.

“This suggests that these counterfeiting reports are not happening within the legitimate beef industry, which is well regulated through legislative requirements, third-party accreditations and customer requirements,” according to the study authors.

Another 30 per cent were seen in secondary processing facilities, which receive incoming ingredients and products, with another 18.9 per cent encountered in farms, the latter all linked to illegal veterinary medicine or growth promoters in cattle.

The report data “suggests that fraud is continually happening” in the beef supply chain, peaking in 2013 but staying at a higher level after that spike than in the years leading up to it.

“This information helps to foster a better understanding on how to defend the supply chain and protect legitimate actors as well as consumers from fraud,” they conclude.

Figures from the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association suggest that global food fraud costs between $10bn and $15bn a year, equivalent to around 10 per cent of all food products sold commercially.

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