23 March 2017, 14:34 PM
  • New science and technologies are now available to combat food fraud says Rupert Hodges, executive director at Oritain
Combating Food Fraud

Britain is firmly establishing itself as a nation of foodies. The fact that there is a celebrity chef sharing recipes on TVs most nights and that so many pubs are continuing to shift their focus on food rather than booze bears testament to that. As part of that trend, people are also increasingly concerned about the origin of food, demanding healthier and more ethically sourced produce. But this love for authentic foods comes at a price. The FSA estimates a whopping 10% of food sold in supermarkets is adulterated and that counterfeiting and piracy could account for over £1bn of the UK’s annual food and drink trade.

Food fraud can affect all businesses, from small boutique fine food retailers to large household brand names. It can destroy revenue, affect margins across the whole supply chain and reputation, as well as result in serious health and safety risks. According to the Grocery Manufacturing Association, a single incident of food fraud can cost a company between 2-15% of their revenue.

For fine food retailers, reputation for excellence is tantamount, and the importance of provenance associated with their premium products is even more important. Many fine food businesses are built on trust, with customers trusting that what they are buying is authentic and origins are genuine. When the trust between a supplier or retailer and their consumers is broken, those values for quality and provenance are thrown in jeopardy.

Some of the foods targeted by fraudsters recently have included Manuka honey, where four out of five jars of this premium honey were identified as fake. Manuka honey is specifically associated with an area in New Zealand where the bees pollinate the native Manuka bush and origin is critical in assuring provenance. Similarly, 2,470,000 caged eggs were sold as free range, and the list goes on.

The good news is many retailers are taking this issue more seriously – not least because of warnings by experts like Professor Chris Elliot from Queens University Belfast that another horsemeat scandal is likely. “Food fraud is one of the biggest challenges worldwide,” he told our team. “It is very well organized and happening at a massive level.” It remains a huge challenge as fraudsters will go to great lengths to cover up scams.

Fortunately, new science and technology has made tackling food fraud more effective now than ever. Science is very much leading the charge in stamping out food fraud and removing any doubt in provenance. These new technologies mean that scientific audits can be made at any point during the supply chain to ensure integrity throughout. They are not reliant on paper trails or packaging but test the product itself, and they can test the integrity of the entire food chain at any point.

We ourselves use a proprietary methodology that creates ‘fingerprints’ using a complex mix of Trace Element testing and Stable Isotope Ratio Analysis (SIRA) that map and catalogue food origins on a hyper granular level – right down to a specific field or farm anywhere in the world. Not only chemical parameters are used e.g. climatic, geological and geographical variables are also used to determine a more complete origin verification. Having this sort of system in place can additionally send a message to suppliers and act as a deterrent for fraudulent activities.

It is something that is very much supported by experts such as Professor Elliot who advocates that more food businesses should carry out clandestine scientific audits. He argues that auditing and verifying the provenance of food is a major step forward in helping businesses to protect their integrity and their reputations. John Ware, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Honey Company, confirms that. “We now have an audit regime in place that will test products from the shelf,” he says. “It means customers can verify from an independent source that our product is genuine New Zealand Honey.” Similarly, Silver Fern Farms, a multinational meat co-operative, is using proof of origin tests to demonstrate how seriously they take provenance to protect their brand against any fraud. 

The more products that are authenticated the quicker we can close the loop on food fraud. And, by proxy, if more businesses can prove that a product does come from a site that is accredited, they are supporting fair trade, under going responsible resourcing and helping to put an end to slave labour.

In conclusion, food fraud is a massive issue that affects everyone across the supply chain. As more businesses make a stance and play their part in authenticating products, it makes it harder for fraudsters to operate and helps to make the complex food supply chain safer for retailers and consumers. The more informed a business is about new technologies, the more successfully they can arm themselves against food fraud risks. These new technologies act as a barrier against fraudsters, putting the control back into hands of businesses and empowering them to take control of their reputations by ensuring provenance.

Science holds the key to revolutionising the way that we tackle food fraud – and putting a stop to this criminal activity will not be so much down to the ‘boys in blue’, but instead to teams of scientific men and women in white lab coats.

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