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The rise of food fraud and its impact on food safety

In recent years food fraud has become much more of an issue for consumers, thanks to viral news articles and social media. But in fact, it has actually existed since 1784, according to an article in Food Quality and Safety.

The ramifications of food fraud can range from damage to brand reputations, damage to revenue for food retail businesses and processing establishments to health complications for the consumer due to its impact on food safety.

Not only can food fraud be found nationally, but due to the increase in global exporting and importing of food affecting multiple countries across the global food supply chain.

What is food fraud?

Food fraud, or Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA) as the FDA refers to it, is defined as the sale of food products that are not up to recognised standards in order to generate financial gain.

Food fraud can appear in a range of different formats. Food Quality and Safety explain that food fraud can include “the addition of inferior or foreign substances to a food, dilution with water, or the intentional mislabelling of food products”.

Food fraud, or what the FDA calls economically motivated adulteration (EMA), is the intentional sale of food products that are not up to recognized standards for economic gain.

he implications of food fraud, Food quality and safety, 2013

The impact of food fraud on food safety

Generally speaking, food fraud often results in the reduction of quality rather than safety. However, there are some cases, in which the food fraud has resulted in complications to public health, which conflicts with the general ethos of food safety.

Real world examples

Many of you may remember the horse meat scandal a couple of years ago. Fortunately, this incident of food fraud didn’t result in any public health consequences. The main issue was the breakdown in the traceability of the foods used in the products and the possibility that veterinary drugs had been used on the horses.

However, there have been other incidents where the impact of food fraud has resulted in serious health complications for the consumer.

Wheat gluten 2007

In 2007, there was a case of food fraud in which wheat gluten used in pet food was adulterated with melamine, resulting in the illnesses and deaths of thousands of pets in the US.

To add to this, it also had an impact on the food supply chain through the contaminated wheat found in animal feed. As a result, the FDA detained all vegetable proteins imported from China intended for human and animal consumption. It was reported that around 2.5 – 3 million people consumed chicken that had consumed contaminated feed.

Dairy products in China

A year after the wheat gluten incident, the same contaminant was found in dairy products sold in China.

The 2008 Chinese milk scandal was a major food safety incident. Milk and infant formula was contaminated with melamine. It affected around 300,000 people, including babies.

Olive oil in Spain

In 1981 a food fraud incident occurred in Spain when industrial-grade rapeseed oil was sold as cheap olive oil. Aniline had been added to the oil to make it unpalatable, but Spanish companies imported it and refined it to remove the aniline and then sold it as olive oil to street traders. Many people died or became ill from what was called Toxic Oil Syndrome, but the cause of the toxicity is still not clear.

The incident is regarded as the most devastating food poisoning event in modern European history. It resulted in an estimated 1,000 deaths and more than 25,000 people seriously injured, many of whom were left permanently disabled.

How to prevent food fraud

EMA incidents are challenging for industry and regulators to prevent because the adulterants are usually innocuous and the adulteration is designed specifically not to be detected.

he implications of food fraud, Food quality and safety, 2013

Unfortunately, preventing food fraud is somewhat of a challenging task due to the nature of the incidents.

The main issue is that the mode in which food fraud enters the supply chain doesn’t follow a consistent format. Because of this, quality assurance testing cannot fully detect its presence.

Preventing food fraud

Prevention of food fraud comes in many different approaches, with each regulatory agency focusing on this task using their own specifications.

In the EU, for example, there is the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). This is an effective tool which enables the “flow of information to enable swift reaction when risks to public health are detected in the food chain”, which can help detect both food safety risks and concerns around food fraud.

In conjunction to this, the EU has also created the EU Food Fraud Network as a response to the Horse Meat crisis to help strengthen their approach to food safety and keep it to the highest standards.

In order to prevent food fraud from affecting the supply chain, a proactive approach to constant learning and adapting needs to be in place in order to successfully mitigate the risk regarding human health consequences.

To help prevent food fraud, the following strategies need to be in place:

  • Improving supplier relationships
  • Effective auditing strategy which includes anti-fraud measures
  • Early detection and warning of adulteration
  • Invest in and explore real-time analysis and new technologies to support this
  • Collaboration and information sharing between public and private interests
  • Testing of products from third-party vendors

By taking a proactive approach and investing in new innovations and technologies the supply chain can help reduce the risk of food fraud. This will inevitably improve food safety and ensure better consumer health and wellbeing.

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5 April 2018