Food Fraud – a challenge for the the food and drinks industry

In recent years food fraud has become much more of an issue for consumers as global food supply has become so complex that it is almost impossible for food producers and retailers to guarantee the provenance of their products. This has spurred initiatives to address these growing concerns. The effects of a food fraud can range from economic losses for producers, harming people’s health and brand/reputational damage.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) state that “Food fraud is committed when food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain.”

The products most susceptible to food fraud are –

  • Fruit juices (in particular pomegranate, orange and apple juice). Fruit juices can be watered down before colouring and sweetener is added to make them appear more concentrated.  Laboratory analysis will detect if the sugar in the juice is naturally occurring or has been added.
  • Olive oil.  Adulteration of olive oil is a common problem in the food industry and is a growing concern to consumers, retailers, olive growers and olive oil processors. Forbes has reported that up to 80 percent of Italian olive oil is fake.  Olive oil may be mixed with cheaper oils, or may be mis-labelled as virgin or extra virgin when it is in fact of a lesser quality.
  • Spices. Spices and seasoning mixes (such as stock cubes or bouillon) can be subject to food fraud, using the following techniques:
  • Ingredients used to enhance perceived quality, such as colouring agents
  • Cutting the spice with a cheaper substitute
  • Fraudulent labelling
  • Coffee. A growing coffee culture and greater demand for single origin and ethically sourced beans has created an incentive for producers to market inferior coffee beans as premium.  Coffee may be mixed with inferior quality beans, it may be incorrectly labelled, or may be ground with ground with foreign objects such as wood or leaves.
  • Honey and maple syrup. Honey has become more difficult to produce due to various factors such as honey bee diseases, industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change.  Fraudulent honey and maple syrup can contain added sugars or sweeteners.
  • Fish.  A recent FSAI study has found that the substitution of pollock and smelt species for the generally more costly cod is cause for some concern. During traceability checks, the names of two suppliers in particular came to the attention of Environmental Health Officers (EHO) and this is being further investigated.
  • Tea. Like coffee, an increased interest in different varieties of tea has opened up an attractive market for fraudulent product.  Cheap products can be labelled and passed off as expensive tea leaves.
  • Milk. Counterfeit milk has become more common in Asian markets due to high levels of demand. Recent scandals have seen the adulteration of milk through the inclusion of contaminants such as urea, caustic soda and melamine.
  • Organic foods. With increased emphasis on marketing foods as “organic”, there has also been an increase in the number of foods that claim to be organic despite containing ingredients that are not considered organic. A US study found that that over 40% of organic foods contained pesticides at higher levels than the accepted range for organic foods.
  • Grains. Recent reports of “plastic rice” originating from China present obvious health risks if consumed regularly, and often the difference can only be ascertained by the consumer once the grain has been cooked.
  • Wine. Adulteration of wine is common by using different grape blends or through the addition of chemicals to give it the appearance of a higher quality product.
  • Meat. The most famous case of fraudulent meat was the horse meat scandal in 2013 in which foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat – as much as 100% of the meat content in some cases.

Similar to HACCP, a food fraud prevention system begins with an evaluation step to characterise food fraud vulnerabilities. What are the potential threats? Once these have been identified consideration must be given to the preventative controls that can be implemented to minimize the vulnerability to an intentional attack.

Food Fraud Controls may include –

  • Only use reputable suppliers
  • Management and staff to be vigilant on site at all times
  • Visitors / contractors must sign in and out and follow the Visitors Policy
  • Chemical store to remain locked when not in use
  • Premise is to be locked when it is not in operation
  • Fridges and Freezers are to be locked when business is closed
  • Drains to have covers and checked regularly for damage
  • Labelling of foodstuffs intended for sale is accurate, compliant and does not mislead the consumer
  • Allergens are controlled and accurately declared on the label.
  • Shelf life analysis complete to ensure foodstuff is safe, fit for purpose and not potentially harmful.
  • Incoming fish is visually inspected to ensure quality is at the appropriate standard
  • Weekly verification and regular internal audits are conducted to verify system.
  • Security clearance of personnel
  • There is a named key holder
  • Site security
  • CCTV
  • Approved Packaging Supplier
  • Approved Chemical Supplier
  • Water potabilty and testing
  • Water tank storage security