Food fraud

Food fraud is the deliberate adulteration of food and can include things like mislabelling, tampering and diluting of food products with the intention of making a profit. This is very different to an unintentional food safety incident where no harm is meant. Food fraud can become food crime when it is an organised activity that is intended to deceive, or even harm, consumers [1]. Understandably, food fraud can have a considerable effect on consumer trust in food.

You may remember the horsemeat scandal in 2013 as a recent example of food fraud. Horsemeat was found in a variety of fresh and frozen food products that were labelled as beef that were being sold by a range of retailers in the UK and Ireland. This fraud was initially detected and exposed using advanced DNA monitoring tests run by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland [2]. Further tests found horsemeat in beef products from food businesses across the EU and the episode quickly became an industry-wide concern.

The impact of the scandal was quite profound. The public became more aware of the potential of food fraud and the seriousness of food crime. Also, consumers were surprised [3] at just how complex the supply chains in the global food industry have become in order to meet consumer demand (for certain cuts of meat for example). The beef supply chain is particularly complex with many import and export routes, processing and storage steps which makes the system more open to fraud [4].

Consumer trust in beef products fell significantly following the scandal [3]; European consumers were worried about the authenticity of beef products and wanted to know their meat was produced in their own country [5]. Consequently, sales of beef products fell compared to the previous year (-43% for frozen burgers and -13% for frozen ready meals) [6].

Following the scandal, reviews and reforms were carried out by the food industry, independent regulators and enforcement government bodies. In the UK, the government-commissioned Elliot report [7] set out eight pillars to improve food integrity; including the need for better testing and information sharing as well as the role of Government to support the food industry to actively investigate and deal with food crime. Retailers and businesses across the food industry made important changes to improve audits and show transparency in their food chains.

Traceability

The food industry also improved their systems of traceability in response to this and other food safety concerns. Under EU law, “traceability means the ability to track any food, feed, food-producing animal or substance that will be used for consumption, through all stages of production, processing and distribution”[8]. Traceability is important because it provides a way to trace and quickly withdraw food products if there is a food fraud or food safety incident; the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is also important for sharing information to coordinate a swift response [9]. This minimises the impact on trade and helps to ensure consumer confidence in the food chain.

The horsemeat scandal marked a turning point for the food industry; it established the importance of building and maintaining consumer trust and has focussed attention on the concept of ‘consumer first’ [4,7].

Do you think that the food industry’s response to the horse meat scandal, or a recent food scandal you are aware of, has been satisfactory?

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food