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Food fraud: catch me if you can

Food fraud is not a new phenomenon; historically, it dates as far back as the Greek and Roman Empire. However, in recent years, better access to advancing technology has allowed us to quickly recognize food distribution failures.

As a result, contemporary food fraud has frequently found itself in the media spotlight. Currently, the authenticity of food in general and the veracity of food labels in particular are major concerns for many, including consumers, regulators, and the food industry at all levels of the food continuum.

In light of the European horsemeat scandal, we have come to realize that failures such as mislabelling can occur at global scales. If you think Canada is immune to fraudulent food labels, think again. Chances are, you have already unknowingly purchased a food product with an inaccurate food label.

Regulators and the food industry are beginning to realize that the problem is far more widespread than first supposed.

For example, a recent study in the U.S. revealed a high substitution rate of 57%, in meat labelling. Consequently, there has been considerable dissonance between the contents of the product and the information found on its label. Similar results were found in a study involving chicken sausages in Italy.

Not a month goes by now without a published study acknowledging how deeply problematic the situation is. This of course raises significant food-safety and consumer-protection issues. Allergens alone can pose significant risks to vulnerable consumers with medical conditions.

There are many reasons for the boom in fraudulent labels. The remarkable growth of food counterfeiting can be partially attributed to the increase in global trade, emerging new markets, and the steady increase in world food prices. Processors, agents, brokers and distributors alike are often tempted to substitute ingredients or products to set an appropriate price point for a targeted market. As well, resource scarcity, the potential for greater profits, and inadequate legislation have all encouraged, even made counterfeit labeling inevitable, the most common result of which is food fraud.

Over the years, some categories of food have been affected more than others. The most documented cases in the food industry have been with fish and seafood products, some of which have been reported in Canada. For example, DNA analysis of hake products commercialized in southern Europe have demonstrated that more than 35% of fish packages were mislabelled on the basis of species substitution. However, in recent years, other categories have been targets: wines and olive oil, amongst others. There have been alleged cases of non-organics been sold as organically grown commodities. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

The best solution for this problem is improved traceability. In the past, food traceability – the capacity to track food ingredients across supply chains – was promoted to improve food safety; it appears that increasing food fraud makes a case for the capacity for higher traceability. The enhancement of tracing systems alone is insufficient, however. Opportunistic behaviours within our food system should also be monitored by food regulators. Unfortunately, the work of surveying the entire system regularly would be an overwhelming task. The Canadian food retail industry is a $120b business. It would be unrealistic, and even undesirable to expect regulators to effectively monitor it. In addition, added public monitoring would likely result in increased bureaucracy and, certainly, higher food prices.

The food industry is just as concerned about food fraud as consumers; perhaps more so. Reported cases of inaccurate labelling can be devastating to both brand equity and the reputation of companies. The main driver for a reduction on food fraud cases is accountability within the industry, and consumers have every right to expect it. More questions are being asked when goods are sold from business to business, before it reaches consumers.

For the industry, however, the clock is ticking. Technological advances are making traceability more accessible, and soon consumers themselves will able to self-authenticate the origins of food products and the validity of ingredients. Many devices and apps to carry out this function are in development worldwide. It will be interesting to track the response of industry and regulators, once consumers have access to these tools. Millions of citizen regulators may not be feasible today, but it is a very possible reality for the very near future.

The lesson is, before consumers actually become part of food traceability systems in real time, industry should ensure food fraud becomes a problem of the past, and as soon as possible.

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