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How do Food Crises affect Food Fraud?

Professor Chris Elliott introduces us to food fraud.
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Hi, there. Chris Elliott again, from Queen’s University Belfast. I talked to you about principles of integrity. And one of those is about the authenticity of our food. And authenticity is a very positive word. But actually there is a very negative connotation to that, as well. And that is cheating. And we call it fraud. Food fraud, where people set out deliberately to cheat us in terms of the food that we are buying. It is a difficult subject for many people to grasp, to understand. But I tell you that the amount of cheating that currently goes on in the world’s food supply system generates more money than the entire narcotics trade in the world. This is big money, big business.
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Billions and billions of euros are being made by people who are cheating all of us. So how does that cheating happen? And I have to tell you, there’s lots and lots of different ways people set out to cheat us. So it can be- we set out to buy a particular food product. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say, olive oil. Very, very nice, very high value product. But lots of people will cheat. They will try to substitute that very high quality olive oil for lower quality olive oil, or in some cases, it won’t even be olive oil. It will be some other type of vegetable oil.
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And often people will say, well, is that really so important that the quality of your olive oil isn’t this high instead of this high? Let me tell you, when people set out to cheat, sometimes they don’t really understand the consequences of when things go wrong. I’ll give you an example of 10 years ago in China. We had what was called the melamine scandal. And that was cheating. That was food fraud. It was food fraud in milk. And what the cheats had done was, they had added this particular chemical, called melamine, to milk. It gave it the appearance of being higher quality, to have higher protein content. And they got away with it. They were able to cheat the test.
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But you know what? What they didn’t know was that melamine was very toxic, a toxic chemical. And when it got into the systems, particularly of young children who were consuming lots of infant formula, it caused massive damage, massive health issues to them, particularly in terms of their kidney function. So the melamine scandal in China cost many lives. Many hundreds of thousands of young infants were hospitalised. That’s what happens when you let people cheat. And we are now right in the middle of the COVID crisis. And I have a warning for you. I have a warning for many people.
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I think the opportunity for cheating now has never been greater because of all of the shocks that are going on, in terms of our world food supply system, shortages in different parts of the world. I guarantee you, some people will be exploiting that. Some people will be cheating even more than they were previously. I am very concerned with commodities like grains, rice, herbs, spices. I believe there’s a lot more cheating going to happen in those types of commodities now.
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So I’ve told you the kind of the scary bit, that people set out to cheat us make money. But you know what? Science and technology can help stop the cheats. We have developed lots and lots of different scientific techniques that will tell us where our food has come from, and how it has been produced, and to make sure that it’s genuine.
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I talked previously about the innovations of digitization of supply chains. And again, that is a great weapon to know where these food commodities have come from and tracking them across the globe. But in science, we have many different techniques, laboratory-based techniques where, by measuring different attributes of the food, we can actually say where that food came from. What country was it? Was it produced to organic systems or conventional? Has somebody tried to add something to that food to give it the appearance of being higher value? Has somebody tried to adulterate the food with having lower value commodities to it? We can check all of that using different scientific tools. And we have an armoury of these different scientific tools.
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Part of the challenge is knowing which of these tools to use at the right time, of course. And that’s where again, myself at Queens and other people in different parts of the world have got this concept. We call it “food fingerprinting.” We can actually take the fingerprint of a type of food. So let me give you an example. Lots of cheating in herbs and spices. And we uncovered massive cheating in oregano, or oregano, you might know it as, a number of years ago. And what we were able to do was, using a technique called molecular spectroscopy, produce a fingerprint for what are oregano should look like, 100% genuine oregano. And we developed very, very low cost, simple scanning techniques.
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And guess what? Back to my smartphone again. We can scan the oregano. We can take its food fingerprint. And within a few seconds, we will know, is it genuine or has it been adulterated in some way? So we’re working on many, many different projects in terms of this fingerprinting– herbs, spices, rice, olive oil, lots and lots of different food commodities. And we combine that with the digital technologies tracking supply chains. It’s going to get more and more difficult for those people to cheat. Because they’re out to harm us. They’re out to make money. And we have to stop them. [CLOSING MUSIC PLAYING]

In this video, Professor Chris Elliott from Queen’s University, Belfast introduces us to food fraud.

You will hear about a case of identified food fraud that happened in China in 2008, how food fraud can be detected with new technology and how Covid-19 increases the risk of food fraud.

What we would like you to do

We would like to know your thoughts on food fraud:

  • Do you think Covid-19 increases the opportunities for fraud in the food chain?
  • Are you more cautious about the food you buy in this time of crisis ?

Please note that due to Covid-19, all our video contributors had to self-record themselves using a laptop or smartphone. As a result, the audio quality is not optimal. We apologise for the inconvenience. Should you want to better understand the video content, we have provided the English audio transcript in the downloads section below .

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Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

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