For many food businesses, the past 16 months have been one of the most challenging periods they have ever faced. Even though the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have seemingly been overcome in many regions, it is likely to be many months before the disruptions caused to international supply chains can be fully mitigated.
Since the pandemic began, there have been considerable concerns that the interruptions in regular quality testing processes and supply chain transparency would result in an elevated risk of food fraud, a problem that already costs the global food industry billions each year. Subsequently, recent industry reports and analysis have confirmed these suspicions: the pandemic has made the industry more vulnerable to fraud, and this issue seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
With a return to pre-pandemic norms and standards still many months away, it is essential for food manufacturers and suppliers to exercise vigilance, and make sure they are making use of all the available tools and methods to prevent the problem of food fraud from getting any worse.
For many months, those within the industry have feared that the pandemic could create favorable conditions for fraudsters, by interrupting regular testing and authentication processes for food items, at a time when budget-conscious and worried consumers would be less discerning about where they source their food.
New research has indicated that these concerns were indeed grounded in fact. In March 2021, the Food Authenticity Network worked with Mérieux NutriSciences and the U.K. government to analyze more than 45,000 global food safety and fraud alerts logged by the Safety HUD database, finding that 90 more food fraud incidents were recorded for the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
The report also showed that 22 countries had recorded an increased number of food fraud incidents, including 14 nations that had not recorded any food fraud incidents at all in 2019.
Meanwhile, an October 2020 report from Wageningen Food Safety Research in the Netherlands provided further evidence that the pandemic has exacerbated food fraud vulnerabilities among European food businesses, noting that nearly half of the risk factors measured have been made worse in the last year. Animal product supply chains, such as fish, meat and milk, were shown to be worst affected, with many of these sectors already seeing a greater-than-average fraud risk even before the pandemic.
Additionally, business improvement and standards company BSI recently issued its annual Supply Chain Risk Insights 2021 Report, in which it stated that the pandemic has led to a worsening of pre-existing vulnerabilities highlighted in the food supply chain, as well as predicting that organizations “will continue to be susceptible to fraud in 2021 and beyond."
Reduced Transparency, Disrupted Processes
When assessing the reasons why the food fraud issue is getting worse, many of these recent reports draw a similar conclusion: COVID-19 is making it increasingly difficult for the industry to focus the right amount of resources on quality assurance and rigorous testing methods.
Wageningen highlighted the following trends as key contributing factors in the recent upswing of food fraud risks:
This view was echoed by BSI’s analysis, which noted that many leading economies — including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands — saw a marked drop in the detention of unsafe food products during the initial spread of COVID-19. When combined with existing budgetary constraints, this has made it difficult for regulators to perform the proper safety checks on foods sold within these markets.
Indeed, this view was recently demonstrated first-hand by Wayne Anderson, director of food science and standards at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). During a session at the International Association for Food Protection’s European Symposium in April 2021, he noted that the regulator was forced to compromise on certain standards during lockdown, prioritizing a “focus on securing food safety, rather than the technical compliance with legislation."
Anderson noted that FSAI’s approach to matters such as origin labelling was relaxed by necessity in order to focus on crucial safety issues such as allergen labelling, preventing thorough due diligence and making the nation’s food chain more vulnerable to fraud.
As the direct impact of the pandemic eases, many within the industry are hopeful that standards can return to normal over the next year. However, the supply chain remains vulnerable at present, and the situation can change quickly if further setbacks in the global pandemic response are encountered.
The BSI report stated: “As the spread of COVID-19 lessens in 2021, government resources will be freed to resume food safety controls. However, it is also likely that any further complications from the virus, such as new strains potentially resulting in additional lockdowns, could prevent countries from checking food thoroughly.”
As such, the industry as a whole is recommended to follow the advice of the Food Authenticity Network, which called on producers and suppliers to “be extra vigilant and use the available existing best practice authenticity control measures and tools to mitigate any potential emerging threats."
In an environment such as this, investing in tried-and-tested analytical methods such as stable isotope analysis becomes more important than ever. These standardized industry tools allow producers to assess the unique chemical fingerprints of different food and drink product samples to gain vital visibility into their origins, properties and production methods, making it possible to draw important conclusions about their quality and authenticity.
By continuing to make proper use of these methods, it is possible to determine whether a product’s true geographic origin matches its labelling, or if it contains any illegal additives or chemicals to dilute, bulk up or change its flavor. With these insights, vendors will be able to ensure that their customers can have full confidence in the providence and quality of the products they buy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented difficulties for businesses across the food supply chain, and it is clear that further challenges are still to come before a return to business as usual can be achieved. By recommitting the proven methods of quality control and assurance, businesses will be playing their part in reaching this goal sooner rather than later.
Mike Seed is sales and product manager at Elementar UK.
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