Food Frauds: Overview, Challenges and Prevention Strategies

Food fraud “Adulteration” means deceiving customers about the quality and/or content of purchased food for financial gain. Among challenges confronting the global markets there are food frauds, which pose a serious threat to the food system. Globally, fraudolent activities are characterised by their intentional nature and target achievement of economic gain. Beyond its economic impact on global food industry, annual estimation of US $40 billion, food crimes mostly constitute risks to human, animal or plant health, animal welfare and the environment. Besides, it represents an ignorance to moral and ethical principles. Sometimes, food fraud arises as an attempt of companies and manufacturers to reduce costs and stay competitive in business. This scenario occurs in case of increased consumers’ demand with limited supplies or price pressures in supply chains, which could result in elevated prices and decreased competitiveness. For instance, high-value animal protein species substitution, such as horse meat in beef, or organic products in high-demand and low supply represent fitting examples of highly vulnerable points.

Olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, apple juice, grape wine, vanilla extract and fish are the most frauded foods.

Strategies for Prevention and Detection

Prevention of food frauds and vulnerability assessment play a pivotal role in pro-active food safety management. In this frame, Supply Chain Mapping and Hot Spot Analysis; including hot spot and hot product analysis; are fundamental steps for detection of vulnerable points where most probable episodes of food frauds can occur. The fight against food fraud calls for a global approach involving cooperation and consultation among all stakeholders at all levels of the food chain. In Europe, The Food Fraud Network (FFN) is the system adopted at EU level since 2013 to improve monitoring of food frauds. FFN links the Commission and designated liaison bodies from each Member State, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. In collaboration with the FFN, the EC Knowledge Centre for Food Fraud and Quality (in the Joint Research Centre) provides its expertise in food science, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), and the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) carry out necessary investigations. Such cooperation between officials with EU agri-food chain knowledge, police and customs officers with investigative powers, judges and prosecutors’ administrations is of the utmost importance to fight fraud in the agri-food chain, both at national and EU levels.

The Role of International Operations in Combating Food Fraud

About fighting food frauds beyond borders, there is operation OPSON, a Europol-Interpol joint operation targets identification of fake and substandard food and beverages. It was established in 2011, and considered as one of the most successful strategies for transboundary fight against food frauds. In addition to EUROPOL and INTERPOL, OPSON was supported by DG SANTE, DG AGRI and JRC, OLAF, national law enforcement agencies, national food agencies, EUIPO, EFSA, FAO, UNICRI and private companies. This active cooperation lead to detection and seizure huge number of transboundary illegal activities. Through OPSON, 28000 tons of illegal and potentially harmful products are seizured, as well as 15 million liters of fake beverages including alcohol and wine. Another evidence was that food frauds in e-commerce channels are increasing and investigation activities should be promoted on e-commerce platforms. In the last OPSON XI, there was raised risks of fraud attributed to recycling of spoiled or expired food, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. The operation reported an emerging trend of widescale relabeling of expired food, and some criminal organizations were involved in purchasing food from waste disposal companies and tampering with fake expiration dates. This deceitful practice not only compromises food quality but also poses significant health hazards, i.e. in case of canned fish. This illegal recycling and trafficking of expired or spoiled food were the most famous and significantly detected fraudolent activities through Europol’s information across France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Spain. Led by a Lithuanian citizen. In Italy and Lithuania, 27 arrests were made, and over 1.5 million packages were seized.

Finally, successful Food Fraud mitigation plan could not achieved without an adopted analytical strategy, which should be designed to reduce the risk of food fraud through optimal analytical assessment. The most cost-effective strategy follows a stepwise approach starting from simple tests before going through more sophisticated analyses. There are different available analytical techniques for detection of food fraud, however their use as reliable official analytical methods does not depend on the assessment of its performance. The most commonly used techniques are so-called targeted methods that are directly linked to specific authenticity markers. Currently, there is a trend toward nontargeted methods, where an overall fingerprint of a food sample is used to detect food fraud with the added advantage of being able to detect unknown or unexpected risk. This new approach brings added challenges, such as the need to establish a representative reference database and the lack of guidelines for validating the methods.

Regarding the situation in Italy, the fish supply chain was adopted as a model in a joint cooperation project among the Ministry of Health, Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Piemonte Liguria e Valle d’Aosta, Istituo Superiore di Sanità and NAS Carbinieri to illustrate vulnerability assessment and critical control points in order to set up targeted control plans. The Italian experience shows how risk analysis results in identification of highly vulnerable points (targeted species, points of sale, etc…) which leads to increased effectiveness in detecting fraud of fish species substitution.

In conclusion, Food Fraud is a critical threat and much collaborative efforts are needed to be exerted for proper fighting and prevention. An effective strategy “Operation/initiative” is mandatory for proper prevention and should focus on sharing intelligence, harmonizing standards, and developing joint initiatives to combat cross-border fraud incidents. These initiatives should consider and incorporate WTO rules to ensure fair and transparent trade while safeguarding consumers. Targeted campaigns and awareness programs should be launched to help consumers identify vulnerable products and understand labelling regulations.

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