‘Today’s complex, fragmented, global food supply chains have led to an increase in food fraud’

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

Beatrice Conde-Petit, food safety officer, Bühler. Photo: Bühler.
Beatrice Conde-Petit, food safety officer, Bühler. Photo: Bühler.
Today’s increasingly complex, fragmented and global food supply chains have led to a steep increase in food fraud, according to Bühler and the only way to tackle it is enhanced transparency across the entire value chain and emerging digital technology.

It claims the digital revolution is transforming the entire food industry and manufacturers need to embrace upcoming technologies to unlock traceability, transparency, and data intelligence. 

The digital technologies of today represent a major opportunity for food producers to improve efficiency, prevent such scandals, and meet the growing demands that consumers have for information and transparency,​” said Beatrice Conde-Petit, food safety officer, Bühler. 

From precision farming, to cloud-based sensor technologies for food-quality inspection, to full traceability of ingredient flows in food manufacturing, and smart distribution logistics, digitalization is here and it is disrupting businesses. 

Consumers, authorities, advocate groups and bloggers worldwide are quick to raise issues on social media – and what they’ve got to say will impact your brand. But, there is also a benefit to the internet buzz. Companies that monitor what’s being said with data analytics can react swiftly and quell the buzz before it gets too loud because they know where potential issues lie and can catch them early on. 

Digitalization will transform every link of the value chain from supply chain, factory operations to food sales and services​,” added Conde-Petit. 

Companies that harness data coming from many sources in one hub, and apply intelligent analytics to understand them, can stay ahead of the curve, stopping safety incidents from becoming scandals​.” 

Digital technologies are not only changing the way food is produced and sold; they are changing the food industry’s relationship with the end consumer. With health and safety high on the agenda, the industry is reaching to new digital technology to prevent food safety risks, protect consumers, and provide the transparency they expect. 

Food fraud goes viral

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Today’s consumers are digitally connected and social media has become the main place to seek and share information about food with a broad audience​,” added Conde-Petit. 

They share everything: recipes, campaigns, advice, pictures, and views about the food they eat and where it comes from. Tips, recommendations, criticism, and boycotts are all part of today’s digital communication landscape. For the food industry this presents both opportunities and challenges that need to be met head on, because in a 24/7 connected world, food safety scares attract attention fast and spread rapidly across social media​.” 

Take, for example, the recent food fraud scandal​ that began in the Netherlands, where eggs were found to be contaminated with fipronil, an insecticide which had been applied illegally in chicken farms. 

As FoodNavigator reported in June last year​, tens of thousands of eggs were recalled in six German states, which originated from the organic laying hen farm in the Netherlands. And the recall quickly spread to additional markets in the EU and beyond. 

Millions of eggs and products containing eggs were removed from supermarket shelves across Europe and Asia. The news of the massive recall quickly went viral as social media posts heavily contributed to magnifying the scare​,” added Conde-Petit. 

Transparency ‘new value driver’

Health and safety, which have always been important, are now decisive factors for food and beverage purchases. A 2016 study by Deloitte, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association in the US, showed traditional value drivers such as price, taste and convenience are no longer the sole deciding factors. 

Transparency has become the new overarching value driver for food, along with health, wellness, safety, social impact, and experience. This is particularly important for food producers because it’s these consumers with preference for these evolving value drivers that make the highest use of social media and digital channels. 

Food safety is clearly top of mind with consumers and has become a real game changer for the food industry​,” said Conde-Petit. 

Preventing contamination, minimizing costly and brand-damaging product recalls, and strengthening consumers’ trust and loyalty are key to strengthening brand value. Implementing stringent practices to manage food safety risk while also engaging in constructive dialogue with consumers is part and parcel in today’s digital economy​.” 

Keeping on top of food safety news is increasingly difficult given the vast flow of information across diverse channels — yet it is critically important. Today, food experts wade through databases, websites, blogs, social media platforms, new streams and scientific literature to conduct time consuming comprehensive hazard analyses and risk assessments. 

Without harnessing the potential of digitalization and smart analytics, it just isn’t possible to know everything that goes on in your markets​,” added Conde-Petit. 

Food fraud occurrences and food safety incidents — if identified early — can be addressed and managed. This reduces potential human suffering, protects jobs and saves brands.​” 

Alerts can prevent food safety incidents

To help food industry players stay ahead, Bühler says it has developed a food safety intelligence service that bundles the overwhelming amount of information in the digital space into a comprehensive dashboard displaying food safety hazards for different foods.

The digital tool enables food safety professionals to get a warning about hazards at an early stage of food safety incidences. It doesn’t rely on official alerts alone but also social media channels.

We created this analytics tool to support food manufacturers in carrying out risk analysis and assess the vulnerability of their business – a task that has become more demanding given the high pace at which new food safety issues are identified​,” said Matthias Graeber, data analytics manager, Bühler.

The information is tailored to individual needs and is instantly updated​.”

Big data analysis

A search for the food category nuts and seeds in Bühler’s food safety intelligence tool, for example, shows that the most common hazard is undeclared allergens, followed by pathogenic microorganisms, mycotoxins, adulteration or fraud, and foreign bodies. 

The presence of pathogenic microorganisms such as Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli on plant-based foods is increasingly recognized as a risk not only for fresh fruit and vegetables, but also for dry foods including nuts, seeds like sesame, spices, and cereal grains. These harmful bacteria pose a high risk for consumers. 

Contamination of peanuts, almonds and other nuts have led to well documented outbreaks of foodborne illness and high profile food recalls and has driven companies out of business. 

Luckily, new digital technologies play a key role in detection and prevention, too. Public health authorities are today able to pinpoint sources of bacterial contamination through big data analysis of foodborne illnesses in combination with DNA profiling of bacteria found in food. This was key to revealing the source of one of the most significant outbreaks of foodborne illness in the US in recent times. 

In 2008/2009, peanuts tainted with Salmonella killed nine people and made hundreds more sick. Over 3,000 products had to be recalled by 200 companies and the industry lost $1bn. It was the tipping point for the biggest change in the legislative landscape. The US Food Modernization Act (FSMA) signed in 2011, changed the food safety system from one that not only reacts but prevents such crises. 

The US Food and Drug Administration, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their European counterparts are all already analyzing big data,” ​added Conde-Petit. “The food safety intelligence tool also analyzes the big data food manufacturers need to stay ahead of the game​.” 

IoT to improve food safety

Nut processing is just one of the industry segments that has had to implement preventive measures to protect consumers from harmful bacteria. Although thermal processing is the most common method for killing bacteria, it cannot be taken for granted that nut roasting will always deliver sufficient Salmonella inactivation. 

Scientific studies have shown Salmonella are relatively heat resistant and dry heat, such as roasting, leads to slow inactivation which needs to be compensated by high temperatures or long exposure times. With this in mind, nut processors need to carefully design the roasting process and ensure continuous monitoring of the critical processing conditions to prove that the process does deliver sufficient bacterial inactivation. To assist them, Bühler has developed an IoT-based monitoring service that provides real-time insight and an overview of conditions including temperature mapping across the full roasting process. 

According to Andy Sharpe, CEO, Bühler Aeroglide, it’s not just nut processors, but all thermal processing lines that will have to be monitored more closely. 

We have to be able to register and document what’s going on in a plant every minute, every hour, every day, to ensure the machine is performing exactly according to a validated process​,” he added. 

Bühler Aeroglide is a service package that includes process monitoring, data-management, analysis and the possibility to intervene when the system shows an alert. It is currently being implemented at the first customer’s plant. 

Bühler is developing a similar IoT-based service for the feed industry, which is also under increasing pressure to prove that harmful bacteria such as Salmonella have been inactivated to prevent livestock diseases. 

Process monitoring in the steam conditioning step of feed pelleting is key for precision processing. It is critical to adjust the process to kill sufficient bacteria and, on the other side, avoid over-processing to protect sensitive nutrients,​” said Edyta Margas, food safety specialist, Bühler. 

Traceability has become essential in the effort to ensure food safety. Take, for example, the management of food allergens. In most countries it is a legal requirement to declare common allergens on food labels. In fact, the detection of undeclared allergens in a product is one of the main reasons for food recalls. 

Assuring compliance in the declaration of allergens requires a number of preventive measures from accurate dosing to efficient cleaning,” ​said Conde-Petit. “The main prerequisite is ensuring traceability of all ingredients, recipes, and production batches​.” In the past, this meant piles of paperwork. Today, thanks to advances in digital technology, it can be managed by automated solutions that guarantee traceability and minimize mistakes throughout the whole production line. 

Unfortunately, today’s increasingly complex, fragmented, and global food supply chains have led to a steep increase in food fraud – the intentional adulteration or mislabeling of food for economic gain. 

Horse meat scandal

One of the most high profile food fraud cases happened in China in 2008 where melamine tainted milk powder​ caused death and illness of babies.  

In 2013 the horse meat​ scandal, where beef had been used in convenience products declared as beef hit the European​ market.  

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Today, more than ever, the integrity of the food system is threatened, putting at risk consumers and food businesses​,” said Conde-Petit. “Eggs contaminated with insecticide, mislabeled fish, adulterated spices, fake honey, and the deliberate introduction of mycotoxin contaminated grain to animal feed are just a few examples of rising food fraud incidences​.” 

The answer to illegal practices in the food sector is enhanced transparency across the entire value chain. It’s here where the emerging digital solutions will create the biggest impact. New real-time track-and-trace sensors and​ blockchain technologies for tamper-proof data sharing will enable food companies to monitor and protect the complete harvest-to-market process. 

And, food analysis to assess food contamination is moving out of the lab. Now, handheld spectroscopy devices in the hand of consumers are already a reality. At industrial scale, advanced optical sorting of food crops with Sortex InGaAs cameras allows the detection and removal of a wide range of foreign materials. 

The inspection of every single grain in combination with big data analysis by AnywarePro for real time display of sorting performance and documentation of sorting statistics has become a powerful tool for building high resolution traceability in the cereal grain value chain. 

In future, this will enable all actors in the food system including end consumers to access every detail about food provenience and processing which is crucial to reestablish transparency and trust in the food ecosystem. 

Food safety hazards are reality, but with the right methods in place, food manufacturers can concentrate on preventing food safety incidences and on reaching consumers, rather than taking a reactive position​,” added Conde-Petit. 

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