Regulator warns on food fraud risk: ‘COVID-19 has created potential opportunities for unscrupulous traders to cut corners’

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: iStock/rmbarricarte
Pic: iStock/rmbarricarte

Related tags: Food fraud, Food crime, COVID-19, coronavirus

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has issued a warning calling on businesses and consumers to be vigilant against heightened food fraud risks arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

The food safety regulator said food and beverage companies should ‘be alert’ for ‘potential food crime activity’ in their supply chains.

The statement was made after FSS said its Scottish Food Crime ad Incidents Unit (SFCIU) was made aware ‘via recent reports’ that the circumstances surrounding the current coronavirus crisis had created an opening for food crime.

A spokesperson for the agency told FoodNavigator that it is unable to comment on specific reports because some are live and ongoing food crime investigations.

“The vast majority of Scotland’s food and drink industry is legitimate and has adapted superbly to the challenges presented by the current epidemic, but unfortunately there is a small minority using the pandemic to commit fraud, with potential to impact business reputation and public health,”​ Ron McNaughton, Head of SFCIU, elaborated.

To mitigate supply chain risk, McNaughton said companies needed to carry out due diligence. “Map your supply chain and look out for any ‘choking’ points presenting an opportunity for corners to be cut, or weaknesses where systems or process are under increased pressure or have reduced resources,”​ he suggested.

Businesses should ‘get to know’ their suppliers and work to trace products ‘right the way through to consumer’ to have confidence in the authenticity of the end product, McNaughton continued.

He also urged anyone who suspects that food fraud could be a factor in their supply chains to report their concerns.

The SFCIU is working with partners including industry, Scottish local authorities, Police Scotland, the Food Standards Agency and organisations such as the Food Industry Intelligence Network and the Food Authenticity Network on intelligence-led initiatives to battle food crime. 

COVID-19 and food fraud: A growing problem?

Food fraud — the deliberate adulteration, substitution, tampering or misrepresentation of food -- has increased in significance as a result of our complex global food supply chain. Costs to the global food and beverage industry have been estimated at $30-40bn each year.

“Food crime is a global threat and costs the UK economy around £1.2bn each year. While not widespread in Scotland, the true extent is unknown and it is enough to affect a small minority of consumers and industry-producers,”​ a spokesperson for FSS told this publication.

FSS believes that COVID-19 and the circumstances surrounding the pandemic may have increased the threat presented by food fraud. “With some disruption to the usual supply chains, and more people staying at home more often due to lockdown, this has created potential opportunities for unscrupulous traders and individuals to cut corners and sell direct to individuals and retailers. Examples are door to door sales of meat and fish products that have not been properly processed through the supply chain, or cheap fake alcohol ‘disguised’ to look like well-known legal brands,”​ the spokesperson explained.

Another example of potential risk is the use of unauthorised health claims, which have seen a spike in demand in the wake of coronavirus. “We put out general advice last month urging consumers to look out for unauthorised health claims on food supplements in relation to COVID-19.... The World Health Organization highlights there is no specific medicine to prevent or treat the new coronavirus.”

Food Standards Scotland supports the work of the Food Authenticity Network, which is an open access website that provides information to help businesses secure food supply chains by mitigating food fraud.

Selvarani Elahi, executive director of the Food Authenticity Network, agreed with the assessment that COVID-19 has elevated the risk of food fraud.

“Recent reports suggest the potential for increased food fraud in global supply chains due to the impact of COVID-19. Therefore, it is vital we continue the good practice in businesses to protect the safety and security of food supply chains,”​ he said.

The Food Authenticity Network has created a dedicated COVID-19 Resource Base that pulls together global information to help businesses combat food fraud.

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