Still a long journey ahead in tackling food fraud, says Elliott

Five years on from the horsemeat scandal that gripped Europe, the lack of a definition for food fraud remains a missing link in the fight against this criminal activity, according to Prof Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast.

In opening comments to the Food Fraud 2018 conference in London earlier this month, Prof Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast – who authored two UK government-commissioned reports on the horsemat crisis – said that work has now started via the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Codex Alimentarius Commission on a definition for food fraud which could hopefully be completed sometime in 2019.

There are already definitions in use but having a widely-accepted, global definition bringing in the key concepts of deception and economic gain will help make efforts to tackle the problem more effective, and help improve consumer trust in the food supply system which is currently at a low ebb.

The horsemeat crisis was a “wake-up call” to the world about food fraud and the ability of criminals to penetrate complex food supply systems and threaten the integrity of food producers and the wellbeing of consumers, said Prof Elliott.

The UK imports food from almost all countries around the world, so it is important to understand that food fraud isn’t a far-flung problem that mainly affects other countries, he added, noting that there isn’t a country in the word - or indeed a food type - that isn’t affected to some extent by food fraud activity.

That means the problem needs to be tackled at a global level, by everyone involved in the food supply chain, he said, welcoming the UK’s formation of the Food Industry Intelligence Network or FIIN, which brings together major retailers, manufacturers and food service companies to share intelligence on food authenticity and traceability.

That data-sharing effort is now starting to be extended to enforcement agencies, including the Food Crime and Incidents Unit (FCIU) in Scotland and – likely in the near future – the London-based National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

Another key element in the fight against food fraud will be to get better at predicting when fraud is likely to occur, Prof Elliott said, citing the recent failure of the garlic harvest in China, which supplies around 80 per cent of the world market. There is now clear evidence of a fraud problem with garlic that could have been predicted earlier if information that affects supply chains is systematically collected and analysed.

Tools could be developed to predict the potential for fraud a year or more ahead of time, which would allow stratified testing programmes and countermeasures for illicit activity. Rice, herbs and spices, seafood (particularly shrimp) and organic foods are all hot spots for fraud at the moment, he added.

Audit weaknesses

However, there needs to be some real advances in traditional supply chain security approaches such as auditing which he said were not really meeting the primary requirements of monitoring integrity and detecting fraud and in some cases are a waste of money.

“We only have to look back at the last few months to see that a lot of these audits gave failed to detect things that they really should have picked up,” he told the conference.

New technologies such as blockchain – which Prof Elliott described as “digital DNA” to help track shipments through the supply chain – and fingerprinting of food will likely also play a big role in future in preventing fraud in future, he predicted.

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