“Organic and eco-labeled food products are at high risk from food fraud because they command a premium,” Ecovia noted.
While the sale of fraudulent organic products is apparently relatively infrequent, a number of incidents have come to light in recent years. For instance, in May a 36m pound shipment of Ukrainian corn and soya beans was shipped to the US via Turkey. When in the US, it was attempted to pass the conventional crops off as organic – a move that would have increased their value by around €3.3m.
Food fraud is a significant threat to the global food sector. The economic cost can be high, with the recent beef scandal in Brazil costing the country’s meat industry an estimated €3l.3bn in lost revenue.
Food manufacturers are vulnerable to food fraud in their supply chains, with long and complex supply networks facing particular risk. As the 2013 horsemeat scandal in Europe demonstrated, large food processors such as Nestle and Findus with complex supply chains run the risk of being drawn into damaging recalls.
The food safety implications are also significant. According to the World Health Organisation, one in ten people falls ill due to contaminated food each year.
Transparency ‘coming to the fore’
Ecovia, which is running a Sustainable Foods Summit in Singapore next month, suggested that transparency is “coming to the fore” in the global food sector. This is being supported by consumer demand.
“Consumers are keen to know about product origins, production methods, and sustainability credentials,” Ecovia observed.
Improved transparency is being supported by technological developments such as ‘smart’ labels and mobile apps, which are able to communicate more information to consumers.
In the UK, for example, organic certification body the Soil Association partnered with the technology firm Provenance in June to provide smart labels on organic foods that enable consumers to track products “from supplier to shelf”.
“Over the next month the organisations will trial cutting-edge software enabling a growing number of tech-minded consumers access to real time data and information on their chosen organic product,” Provenance said when it announced the tie-up.
Analytical tools, such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, are being used to authenticate premium products, such as Manuka honey, basmati rice, and extra virgin olive oil, Ecovia said.
Forensic techniques, such as DNA fingerprinting, are also in development. Last month, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre developed a new metabolomics fingerprinting methodology that, the researchers claimed, can be used to authenticate organic products.
The research comes as the EC targetings increased traceability in the organic sector in order to combat potential fraud. Earlier this year, a new system to electronically certify imported organic food and ingredients came into effect.
The Commission is also working with Chinese regulators under the auspices of the EU-China-Safe project that intends to improve food safety and boost consumer confidence in the reliability of food to facilitate food trade between the EU and China.
UK based trade body the Organic Trade Board has “welcomed” such initiatives but stressed that organic products are already “highly regulated” and trusted.
“[This] gives consumers huge levels of reassurance that what they buy is what they are expecting… The certification process for organic itself already makes food fraud an unlikely occurrence,” Anna Rosier, OTB director, said.