Food fraud is nothing new. It has been a problem for many years and remains essentially unsolved. It is recognized as one of four different challenges to food integrity and is almost always motivated by economic gain. The European Commission defines food fraud as “any suspected intentional action by businesses or individuals for the purpose of deceiving purchasers and gaining undue advantage therefrom.”
The other three challenges are:
- Food defense, which is primarily aimed at preventing intentional harm and may even occur when disgruntled employees sabotage food products;
- Food quality, which usually results from unintentional actions but may involve food fraud; and
- Food safety, which is mostly unintentional, with causes such as contamination and failure to control critical processes, but can also be malicious or fraudulent.
The phrase “food fraud” covers a variety of different types of fraud, among which are dilution, substitution, unapproved enhancement, concealment, counterfeit, mislabeling, and gray market. It is continually an issue because of the increasing length and complexity of supply chains. Moreover, supplier vulnerabilities are driven by the need to shift from one supply chain to another. Aside from the economic impacts of food fraud, there is always an inherent safety risk when ingredients are substituted, whether intentional or not. Traceability is lost, increasing the chances of additional undetected substitutions.
An example of an unintentional action with a big impact is the melamine scandal in China in 2008. This started as a food fraud case when someone used melamine, a non-food nitrogen source that was misidentified as “protein” by substituting routine total nitrogen testing methods for testing that would have indicated digestible nitrogen in baby and pet foods. This resulted in fatalities and hospitalizations, followed by the establishment of new regulations to address the potential for economically motivated fraud that results in a food safety hazard. There have been other cases over the years of fake ingredients being used in many products driven by people who basically don’t know what they’re doing.
A Growing Global Problem
Each month, the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission publishes a summary of food fraud and adulteration cases brought to its attention. This summary is by no means an exhaustive list, comprising only the cases reported in press articles around the globe.
The March 2022 monthly summary of articles on food fraud and adulteration had instances from 22 countries, including four countries inside the EU and the U.K. The size of some is quite staggering. One from China involved a criminal network smuggling more than 180,000 tons of seafood. Another resulted in the closing of a factory in Cameroon that was producing fake honey by mixing water, powdered sugar, and other ingredients.
While these examples represent significant economic fraud, others such as ingredient substitutions that introduce unlabeled allergens pose a huge risk to those with food allergies.
Food fraud is clearly a significant threat to food safety, impacting consumer health, industry operations, and brand reputation. Preventing food fraud is critical, but understanding and identifying the risky hot spots is not that easy. Sound food safety systems will always be an essential foundation, and developing these is a key challenge if food fraud is to be defeated. Current mitigation measures based on sampling and testing are useful in the short term but do not necessarily solve the problem. Detecting food fraud does not prevent it; it just postpones the issue until the fraudster has found another means of avoiding detection.
As mentioned, food fraud is very often a criminal activity driven by economic gain. The high value of the ingredient or material in saffron, honey, or beef, for example, is one motivator. Substituting or adulterating a high value item with something of a lesser value creates more profit. But even some traditionally lower-value items can make a profit for food criminals because of climate or disease impacting crop yields, such as hot weather affecting olive oil harvests, driving up the price of virgin olive oil. This makes adulteration or mislabeling even more appealing. Geopolitical tensions, such as the impact of war on availability of ingredients in the supply chain, create similar pressures.