Brexit and COVID-19 raise threat of food fraud: ‘The food industry is facing unprecedented challenges and an uncertain future’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Brexit and COVID-19 have unlocked opportunities for food fraud / Pic: GettyImages-ViewApart
Brexit and COVID-19 have unlocked opportunities for food fraud / Pic: GettyImages-ViewApart

Related tags Fraud Adulteration

The UK food industry is facing an increased risk of food fraud due to the disruptions associated with COVID-19 and Brexit. Equipment manufacturer Elementar UK is urging the industry to act.

Elementar UK, which produces elemental analysers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers for the food safety sector, has suggested that a ‘growing influx’ of adulterated and fraudulent products have been ‘flooding’ the market over the past six months.

Over the summer, Interpol and Europol coordinated Operation Opson IX, during which more than $40 million of fake food and drink were seized, with 19 organised crime groups disrupted and 407 individuals arrested.

The items seized included cheese that tested positive for E.coli bacteria, meat from illegally slaughtered animals and 6,500 litres of expired drinks.

Elementar says that these activities suggest COVID-19 is unlocking fresh opportunities for fraudsters. Operation Opson IX seizures of expired food items, or foods where the expiry dates had been altered, were ‘significantly higher’ than during previous operations – and a shipment of seafood was even being smuggled by being falsely declared as personal protective equipment.

In recent months, organisations including Lloyd's Register, the Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board and Food Standards Scotland have all warned that the current pandemic is greatly increasing the risk of food fraud.

National lockdowns have disrupted regular business processes, meaning that quality checks may not be taking place across the supply chain as in the past.

There is also a pull from the consumer side as shoppers who are financially squeezed may becoming ‘less discerning' about where they source their food.

For businesses in the UK, this threat could now be compounded by the forthcoming impact of Brexit.

The UK’s break from established Europe-wide systems of food standards regulation and quality control could create uncertainties – and these could be exploited by fraudsters. With no post-Brexit trade deal yet established between the UK and EU and the current transitional agreement expiring on December 31st, there is no end in sight to this ambiguity.

“At the moment, the food industry is facing unprecedented challenges and an uncertain future. With all of the disruptions to business processes and forward planning, it is unsurprising that food suppliers are finding it harder to detect examples of fraud and maintain their quality control standards; however, it is crucial to their future success that they are able to solve this problem,”​ Mike Seed, IRMS sales and product manager for Elementar UK, warned.

Prepare now for food fraud threat: Elementar UK

Elementar UK is calling on companies to ensure their approach to quality assessment and analysis of food products remains ‘robust’ throughout their supply chain.

According to Seed, this can be achieved - at least in part - by ensuring control labs are equipped with appropriate technology.

“Stable isotope analysis is one of the most powerful methods available to the food industry for combating food fraud in all its forms. By analysing the unique chemical signature or fingerprint of each food product, labs can gain important insights into their origins, properties and production methods, making it much easier to identify evidence of fraud and adulteration,”​ Seed elaborated.

“These methods can be used to identify whether meats and fruit juices are really from their stated places of origin, or to find evidence of illegal additives and chemicals in products such as honey and wine. Such techniques can also be used to assess a product’s specific quality, such as protein or fibre content.

“With so many modern stable isotope analysers being designed to offer efficient, automated performance, it is vital that food analysis labs make sure they have the right equipment in place to carry out this essential work as smoothly as possible. At a time when other parts of the supply chain are facing such disruption, these labs can play a major role in overcoming the current challenges, simply by equipping themselves to deliver timely, accurate results.”

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