Already a multi-billion dollar problem for the global food industry, the chaos caused by COVID-19 is allowing new opportunities for fraudsters to profiteer — undermining consumer trust in the food they purchase.
Food fraud has long been seen as one of the most pernicious threats to global food supply chains for a number of reasons. Firstly, fraudulent or adulterated food and drink products create significant health risks for end users, and undermine their confidence in the market; they also undercut profit margins for legitimate traders and create significant costs for the authorities responsible for tackling the problem.
Altering, substituting or tampering with food products or packaging costs the global food industry up to $40 billion each year, and it is likely that this figure could grow even higher once the exceptional circumstances created by COVID-19 are taken into account. A number of industry organizations — including the Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board, Lloyd’s Register and Food Standards Scotland — have all spoken up in recent months to warn the industry of the need for greater vigilance on food crime activity in the present climate.
With transport networks, labour conditions and production lines all under pressure during 2020, the regular supply of responsibly-produced food and drink items to shop shelves has often been disrupted. This has created an opportunity for criminals to fill this gap with substandard or illegally adulterated products sold online, direct to consumers or via stores that are too stretched to pay close attention to their regular due diligence processes.
During the summer, more than $40 million worth of potentially dangerous fake food and drink products were seized by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), including bacterially contaminated dairy products, meat from illegally slaughtered animals and food products that had been mislabelled as medicinal cures. These instances are likely to be among many, and illustrates the scale of the current problem.
With the pressures of COVID-19 making it more difficult for businesses and regulators to carry out the necessary supply-chain checks and audits, these problems are likely to persist for as long as the pandemic does — which underlines the need for responsible suppliers to remain on alert.
One of the most challenging dynamics of the current pandemic is the sudden prevalence of unprecedented problems, for which no clear solution yet exists. Food fraud is no less dangerous a threat, but the upside for industry is that the cure for this particular problem is tried and tested, and regularly available.
Simply put, food suppliers and manufacturers must do all they can to maintain good practice, even in the face of the additional costs, delays and uncertainty that COVID-19 has created. Food and drink products still need to be tested and verified according to the same internationally recognized standards that have formed the backbone of the industry’s safety practices for countless years.
The technologies available to accomplish this are highly sophisticated, and continue to grow more advanced. For example, food scientists are well aware that all food and beverage products have a unique intrinsic signature that can reveal important insights into its origins, properties and production methods; by using a technique called stable isotope analysis, labs can identify whether a product adheres to the necessary quality standards, simply by studying a small sample.
For example, by looking at the isotopic ratios of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen and hydrogen in a food sample, it is possible to determine whether the product’s true geographic origin matches its labelling — an important marker for protected products such as Manuka honey. This method can also be used to check for signs of any prohibited additives or adulterants used to dilute, bulk up or change the flavor of the product in question.
None of these tools can prevent fraudsters from attempting to take advantage of the pandemic to infiltrate the supply chain with their substandard products. However, they can help to ensure that these products are identified and rooted out, and their suppliers held to account, before they have a chance to damage the trust or health of the consumers.
The COVID-19 pandemic looks likely to continue for some time, and this will undoubtedly create ongoing challenges for the food industry. By staying vigilant about food fraud and making use of all of the techniques available to prevent it, businesses can ensure that consumers around the world can continue to rely on the quality and traceability of what they eat and drink, even as other certainties crumble away.
Mike Seed is sales and product manager at Elementar U.K.
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