FQN'S Food Fraud Forum

Experts discuss challenges and opportunities around food fraud

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Do you know what you are eating is what it says it is?
Do you know what you are eating is what it says it is?

Related tags Food fraud Food and drug administration Food safety Food Fraud

FoodQualityNews gathered four industry experts for an online forum to talk about food fraud last week. Below is a taster of what they said.

Topics included risks industry faces throughout the supply chain, from those making the ingredients to the retailer selling the final product.

Food adulteration and/or authenticity due to supply issues, economic motives or criminal activity and the topic of traceability were debated.

Michael Walker, consultant, Public Analyst at the Lab of the Government Chemist (LGC Group), John Spink, director and assistant professor, Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University, Paul Brereton of FERA and Christopher Van Gundy, partner at Keller and Heckman took part.

Elliott review progress

Walker was a subject matter expert on laboratory services on Professor Chris Elliott’s review of the food chain in 2013.

Elliott was asked to review the food supply network by the UK government in June 2013. An interim report in December 2013 had 48 recommendations and the final report in 2014 had eight pillars of food integrity grouping the recommendations.

“His first interim report was published in December 2013 and that was a good way of letting people know the direction of travel and that interim report advanced significant cultural changes in how industry and government think about food fraud and introduced the idea to the general public of food crime, the practice of cheating in the food supply chain.”

Food fraud developments

Dr Spink said awareness of food fraud has been around for a while but the issue is building from a strategic standpoint.

“At the highest levels there is definitely an enterprise wide risk management focus on this type of risk and there’s growing awareness that’s potentially catastrophic for a company or brand,” ​he said.

“From the regulatory standpoint we’ve had economically motivated adulteration (EMA) which is the substance side of food fraud it’s been around and a focus area from around 2009 when the Food and Drug Administration had its first meeting.”

Spink said EMA and food fraud is being thought about as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) under the preventative controls part of the law.

“FDA has asked for public comments, that period closed in December and it’s still a closed period,” ​he said.

“FDA has not made any statements how they would handle EMA or food fraud and even though there’s activity going on all over the world moving forward, such as the UK, the EU and China’s included it in its new food laws but FDA is in a quiet period now.

“The belief is it will be under preventative controls, from a theoretical standpoint that does makes sense as the planning and the action is more of a white-collar crime than a physical crime where there’s the distance or proximity from the perpetrator to the victim is very far so that’s a preventative control type strategy.”  

Food Integrity project aims

Paul Brereton, from FERA which recently became a private research organisation, explained its role in co-ordinating the Food Integrity project.

The EU Commission has put more than €12m into this activity and it’s really looking at how we can get people together, all stakeholders, to address this issue​,” he said.

“When horse meat broke there was a lot of confusion I would say and lack of clarity about who was in charge, who was the people to go and talk to, industry was not sure where to go to.

“If we look at a food safety problem it is clear that it’s the FSA in the UK, or EFSA in Europe or the FDA in the USA, when you look at food authenticity or food fraud it wasn’t clear who was the responsible body and where people could go to get more information.”

The project will bring all stakeholders and information together, said Brereton.

“It’s not clear for industry where they go to for this information. We are supplying that source of resource, whether its methods or experts in the field, we are setting up this sort of information,” ​he said.

“We’re also doing research looking at how can we better anticipate where food fraud might occur, it’s a very difficult problem, we don’t underestimate the difficulty, but we have to start looking at these sorts of systems.

“So this is looking at changes in the commodity prices for instance any particular perturbations in the whole system that might give an idea of the risks of future fraud.

“We’re also looking at how we can develop better, faster methods. We’re procuring research in this area that other people are going to deliver. We’re also producing scientific opinions about some of these aspects because again as a lot of the stakeholders don’t know where to go, what methods or procedures they can use so we’re producing some independent advice for them as well.”

Olive oil adulteration problem?

Christopher Van Gundy, partner at Keller and Heckman, advises clients on supply chain issues and held a seminar on olive oil after the forum.

97% of olive oil in the world comes from countries in the EU such as Spain, Italy and Greece.

“In the US the question of who has the authority for food fraud, well olive oil kind of answers the question, really nobody, there’s really no enforcement of olive oil standards,” ​he said.

“We have many reports of adulteration in the US and we also have retailer indifference. The retailer attitude seems to be ‘well, we rely on our suppliers and if we hear of a problem we’ll maybe look into it but at the end of the day if litigation happens we’ll kick this problem to our supplier’.”

Van Gundy said the food court in San Francisco covers false advertising of various products and purported class actions.

“The takeaway seems to be…it’s all about consumer deception, regardless of whether you comply with the affable FDA law or not, if consumers are deceived by your labelling, you call it extra virgin and it’s actually a much lower grade, refined oil or involves another seed oil then that would be a basis for someone to argue that you are liable and you’ve mislabelled it and damages could unsue or injunctive relief.”

There are laws governing the definition of olive oil but they are not being enforced, he added.

“In the case of pomegranate juice, we had a similar situation…it got cleaned up primarily through litigation. After some litigation successes the FDA did weigh in and issued what’s called an import alert and barred some adulterated product from coming into the US. 

“So it remains to be seen what direction olive oil will go but there is clearly a perceived problem and it seems to fit, my rule of thumb of food fraud where you have a product that’s hard for consumers to see if it is adulterated or not, it has a high premium, it perhaps offers health benefits and it’s subject to shortages.”

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