Any progress after the horsemeat scandal?
Professor Chris Elliott, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, opened the Food Fraud Conference with a reference to the horsemeat scandal of 2013. Today, in 2018, we are 5 years on and one can ask 3 questions:
- What have we learnt?
- What have we done?
- What is still to do?
Since 2013 it has become obvious that food fraud is a global problem. Elliott stated: “Wherever you go and look for fraud, you will find it.” What is food fraud? A definition is still missing. Elliott presented his proposal: “Any actions taken by businesses or individuals that deceive other businesses and/or individuals in terms of misrepresenting food, food ingredients or food packaging that brings about a financial gain.”
Each product can be affected, ranging from cheap salt to expensive saffron. The problem is growing since the Western world imports food and ingredients from everywhere in the world. The supply chains are complex and need to be made as transparent as possible. Elliott’s vision is to build a “food fortress” that defends both, people and business.
We are aware of the problem. But obviously, there could have been more progress within 5 years. The consumers still do not trust into the supply chain. According to a British survey, 58 % of the respondents trust in farmers, while only 33-34 % trust in supermarkets, manufacturers and the government. It would be part of Elliott’s “food fortress” to make fingerprints of the single products available. The people could scan them with their smartphone and would get a reliable and trustworthy information about the food they buy.
Elliott focuses his recent work on rice, herbs and spices, shrimps and organic food. These 4 commodities have in common that they are highly vulnerable to food fraud.
Definition of food fraud is still missing
The missing definition of food fraud was also important for the following speakers. Professor Samuel Godefroy, Professor of Food Risk Analysis & Regulatory Systems at Universite Laval, Quebec, pointed to the notions that relate to “food fraud”. It is a deliberate act and it is about economic gain. Furthermore, it is meant to be hidden and it misrepresents a food product to the consumers.
Regulations have been enforced since ancient times, aimed at the protection of consumers and trade. In the British and Canadian laws of the 19th century, the wording was already very similar to what we are recently talking about. E. g. “adulterated food” was food which “contains a poison” or “contains something that is of less value than the actual food”. Labelling was introduced as one strategy to prevent fraud. The idea came up to define standards for food, and each food that was below the standard would be considered as adulterated.
Prevention as an up-to-date approach against food fraud
Godefroy underlined that today a different, a more preventive regulatory approach is necessary. He distinguished food fraud according to the posed risk: Of lower risk is simple misrepresentation, e. g. false weights, mis-labelling of fish. The risk is getting higher as soon as the misrepresentation affects the food safety. Mis-labelling related to ingredients can threaten vulnerable groups. This is the case when foods contain ingredients that are hazardous to allergic individuals, celiacs or children. The risk is high when the fraudster changes the composition of the product by adding or substituting ingredients.
If the risk is low, a reactive approach is sufficient as foreseen by the general law. Stronger penalties can be appropriate, if the risk is mid-sized. If the risk is high, the authorities should switch to a preventive approach: The food control could require vulnerability assessments from the companies as well as mitigation measures to reduce the risk.
So far, the traditional food system is based on a reactive approach. It relies on inspections and testing on end products. The risk reduction is not always satisfactory. A modern approach is preventive. In this perspective, the whole supply chain is considered as responsible to deliver a safe product. The preventive approach relies on process control and at the end it can improve significantly the level of risk reduction. It requires collaboration between industry, regulators, academia and consumers. The collaboration is aimed at gathering intelligence. The actors need to develop vulnerability assessments and management tools, analytical methods and concepts for risk communication to increase consumers’ trust and confidence.
Importance of data recording
Petter Olsen is Senior Scientist at the Norwegian based institute NOFIMA. His leading question was about methods to detect food fraud. A definition of “food fraud” is important for his work. He described it as misrepresentation and as committed deliberately. From his perspective the concept of “claim” is essential. Claims refer to the characteristics of a product, e. g. the regional origin, ingredients, weight, quantity, organically grown etc. Claims can be made explicitly, e. g. on the label. They can also be made implicitly. This means that it should be stated explicitly if the product – against expectations or in contrast to similar products – had (not) a certain characteristic.
If one is looking for food fraud, data recordings can be useful. Data can reveal differences in quantities between produced and sold goods. Olsen referred to fish caught in the Finnmark region. According to statistics 62,910,000 tons of fish were in the nets, while 67,943,000 tons were processed or sold. This difference should not automatically be associated with food fraud but it can be a hint.
Significant contextual knowledge is required to find the reasons. Measurement errors can be occurred, reporting errors, a time delay etc. Data analysis is also the method of choice in food safety incidents. It makes it possible to find sources of contamination by tracing the food supply chain back. In the case of a recall, data is also the key to find out where the products are gone.
Detection of food fraud by a combination of lab analysis and data recording
But data refers always to the macro level. It cannot reveal in detail what happened, when and caused by whom. Analytical methods are needed to find out whether samples are mis-labelled and whether food-safety is affected. But they may need an expensive equipment and may be expensive as well as time consuming.
Olsen concluded that analytical methods are essential but not sufficient to prove the claims. There are claims that cannot be verified analytically, especially the claim “organic”. To get a complete picture, data recording and analytical methods should be combined. Finally, data recording can give a hint where and when laboratory analysis should be conducted.
Cinnamon, seafood and blue berries as target for food fraud
Sara Stead, Principle Scientist at Waters Corp., Chris Elliott and Tomi Helin, Materials Manager at the Finnish dairy manufacturer Valio, gave deeper insights into fraud with cinnamon, seafood and blue berries.
Worldwide exist different types of cinnamon, and it is one of the most commonly adulterated spices on the market. Mainly Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese Cassia cinnamon are used in the food production. If the cinnamon is ground, the types cannot be distinguished with a naked eye. Cassia contains high amounts of coumarin, a substance that is probably carcinogenic to humans, toxic to the liver and cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon. Stead showed the differences regarding certain parameters to distinguish the various cinnamon types. Obviously, by now the analytical measures have been developed to such an extent that cinnamon fraud can be detected easily.
The 7 sins of seafood
Seafood fraud is more complicated. Seafood is often involved into complex supply chains, it can be heavily processed and encounters a high demand. This makes seafood an ideal target for food fraud. Elliott presented the different types of fraud that he identified in this context: Seafood can be mislabelled in that sense that a higher value type of fish is replaced by a lower value species. According to statistics this happens to 20 % of the seafood sold worldwide. Seafood can be adulterated by adding other substances to increase weight. Mis-labelling can refer to the origin. Consumers pay more for fish that was grown in a sustainable manner compared to fish from conventional farms.
The fish can be caught without observing the law and fishing quota. It is also a fraudulent to make a false claim about the catch method which can result into high losses because of undesirable by-catches and destruction of the sea floor. Another problem in the context of seafood production is modern slavery, and the animal welfare of fish has enhanced public awareness.
Even such a variety of problems is no reason to be pessimistic because Elliott had also good news for the audience. Innovations in molecular biology in combination with other methods make it possible to detect most forms of seafood fraud. By testing the DNA of a fish, different species can be distinguished, and it is also possible to identify added substances. The food control can get this information within seconds. Furthermore, the DNA can provide information about the origin of the fish because, even if they are the same species, fish from different locations differ at least slightly. The analysis of stress markers gives a clear hint at the catch method and at animal welfare. It is possible to develop fingerprints of seafood to identify species, breed, geographic origin, sustainability of production, capture methods etc.
Bilberry, blueberry and other blue berries
Blueberries are a superfood and essential in the trend of “clean eating”. Sales of products containing blueberries increased during the last years. But blueberry is not blueberry. There are several hundred different types of blue berries, among them the arctic bilberry and the common blueberry. They differ regarding micronutrients and price. Based on DNA tests it is possible to identify the different berries. In a study researchers examined whether the labelling of 45 dietary supplements was according to the ingredients. They found out that over 30 % of the supplements did not contain anthocyanins sourced from the claimed ingredients (bilberry, blueberry, cranberry, lingonberry). Even if a product contained bilberry or blueberry, the contents differed significantly. Food fraud is thus also a topic for dairy product manufacturers.
Retailers also involved
Food fraud is not just a topic for producers, academia and consumers but also for retailers. David Oliver, Head of Technical, Delicious Food Team, presented Co-op’s approach as a vivid example, based on collaboration. His speech was like a proof of his sense for collaboration because he gave it together with Stephen Shields, Technical Director of the vegetables’ supplier Huntapac. Oliver highlighted the possibility for suppliers to discuss problems with Co-op without fearing negative consequences. He concluded his speech with four key messages for the audience:
- Doing nothing is not an option.
- Assess the risk within your supply chain.
- Engage with industry experts, develop a model that works for you.
- Work collaboratively to address the challenges we face as an industry.
About 300 people participated in the conference. Obviously, they were mostly satisfied regarding topics and the quality of the speeches. One attendee from Australia shared on Twitter that he travelled to London for this one-day conference and in his opinion the trip was “completely worth it so far”. The mixture of speeches and panel discussions provided variety. The discussion did not get stuck halfway but the speakers were interested in promoting the topic and allowed insights into their experiences regarding food fraud.
Post Scriptum: The weather
Icy cold in the United Kingdom at the beginning of March. I was lucky because my flights took place. I do not want to complain about delays of several hours. Chris Elliott had to stay even two more days in London because the airports in Ireland were closed.