Food fraud involves the intentional substitution, addition, tampering with, or misrepresentation of food products, ingredients, packaging, or product claims, for economic gain. The threats range anywhere from loss of food company revenue to product pilferers, to consumer illness or death from consuming tainted products.
Douglas Moyer, a packaging and food safety expert at Michigan State University, told FoodProductionDaily food fraud, and the criminals that perpetrate it, present real, serious risks to consumers.
“The fraudster is a human pathogen,” he said.
Moyer said to end fraud, the food industry needs to move away from strategies that focus on reaction and work toward a proactive approach.
“With respect to food fraud, we wake up at the intervention point; we respond to actions,” he said. “Instead of waiting for these events to occur, we have to start anticipating what’s going to happen, and learn to think like fraudsters, so we can prevent the next potentially harmful food fraud incident from occurring.”
Moyer said global regulators are showing positive signs of moving in that direction. For example, language in Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) documents includes more than 70 mentions of prevention, and 11 specific mentions of “intentional adulteration” of the food supply.
Food supply oversight
Moyer added the FSMA plan to step up oversight of imported foods and international food operations probably won’t curtail the problem completely.
“Monitoring all food imports isn’t practical; monitoring all international food manufacturing isn’t, either,” he said. “We need to focus on the roots of the risks and actions—gather intelligence, create a forum to share concerns and communally tackle the problem, and create greater awareness.”
An effective way to fight food fraud, Moyer advised, is to better understand the people frequently committing the fraud, and the types of fraud that occurs. They could adulterate the product (like the Chinese fraudsters that tainted infant formula with melamine, with fatal results), tamper with labelling, divert product from one market to another, steal product from a store or warehouse then resell through unauthorized channels, or produce knockoff products/packaging.
One product category prone to counterfeiting is seafood, Moyer said. Fraudsters frequently put cheap fish species in packages labelled and sold as a pricier fish, short-weight packages, and mislabel the country of origin.
Packaging frequently is the target of food fraud perpetrators, Moyer said, but it also can be a valuable tool in detecting food fraud. A container can provide visual cues, offers codes that can be traced or checked for fraudulence, etc.
Also, Moyer said, food fraud is best combatted when food industry stakeholders work together to counter the problem. Food scientists, packaging producers, supply chain managers, and others should communicate and take a multi-disciplinary approach.
Moyer spoke to FPD at the Food Safety Summit, an annual conference and exposition focusing on current safety concerns and emerging technologies. The event is taking place in Baltimore April 8-10.