Fighting fraudulent threats to our food system

01 March 2022, 07:15 AM
  • Dr. Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food, a food innovation community, discusses the challenges and solutions to food fraud in Europe
Fighting fraudulent threats to our food system

Despite its resilience and adaptability, the food system has faced an ongoing threat for centuries: food fraud. Characterised by the goal of making economic gain and intentionally violating rules, requirements and legislations, fraud within the food system puts consumers’ health and safety at risk, generates unfair market competition, and jeopardises consumer trust for the food system.

From the replacement, removal, and addition of ingredients to the absence, falsification and incorrect inclusion of food labelling, food fraud can take many forms and can infiltrate supply chains at many stages. A recent example includes the mass identification of incorrectly labelled vanilla products by the General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) France which has been reported to pose a risk to product authenticity and potentially consumer safety.

Despite their different forms, one thing that types of food fraud have in common is that they have no place within our food system.

Food fraud during COVID-19
A total of 349 notifications were sent to the European Commission’s Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System for Food Fraud (AAC-FF) over the course of 2020, representing a 20% increase compared to 2019, with the main categories notified being fats and oils and fish and meat products1.

There are of course other factors at play, but the increase of food fraud during the pandemic cannot be considered a coincidence. The pandemic is thought to have catalysed fraud across the entire world; from websites selling artificial COVID-19 tests to the seizure of substandard facemasks, counterfeiters have been quick to profit from the COVID-19 outbreak and associated fear from consumers, and food has unfortunately been no exception.

Despite the food system showcasing extreme resilience during the pandemic, OPSON 2020 - a joint operation between Europol and Interpol targeting fake and substandard food and beverages - confirmed ‘a new disturbing trend’ linked to the infiltration of low-quality products into the food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic2. As well as fraudsters profiting from the fear of food shortages and supply chain disruptions, it was discovered that large quantities of artificial and potentially harmful food and vitamin supplements were entering the EU market as criminal groups took advantage of the increased focus on personalised nutrition and health during the pandemic3. Although these stages of the pandemic may be over for much of Europe, the consequential fraudulent foods and criminal groups may now be embedded deep within the system.

Solutions to identify and prevent food fraud
However, the food system is fighting back. The power of food innovation means there are already numerous solutions identifying and preventing food fraud, and startups are working tirelessly to scale new ideas and inventions. Digital traceability systems such as blockchain - a decentralised system for recording and protecting transactions and data - can help to track a food product’s journey through the supply chain and pinpoint the origins of food fraud. This is why EIT Food supports entrepreneurs who are innovating to increase transparency and traceability through technologies like this.

EIT Food RisingFoodStar Connecting Food, for example, has created a digital platform that can follow a product in real-time, tracking and digitally auditing each batch of products as they go through the supply chain. Another example is SwissDeCode, a startup creating DNA testing systems that allow food producers and farmers to quickly prove the authenticity and safety of their food products, ensuring that fraudulent foods do not enter the supply chain. With usual lab testing processes, this can take up to seven days to complete, but with this rapid, on-site test, the results can be recorded within hours, improving the efficiency and safety of the food system in parallel.

The importance of a systems approach to challenges such as food fraud mitigation can also not be ignored. Through closer collaboration, knowledge sharing and unified best practice, food system businesses can work together to set standards so that it becomes impossible for food fraud to occur. A great example of this is the Food Authenticity Network, a public-private organisation that gathers information on food authenticity testing, food fraud mitigation and food supply chain integrity, and then shares it via its open access website. This means that stakeholders can share best practice and advice, helping to raise standards worldwide.

Consumer trust, public engagement and education also play a key role in phasing out food fraud. By better educating consumers about the risks and solutions, as well as involving them in the co-creation of innovation, consumers will have a better understanding, improving consumer trust as a result. What’s more, consumer food behaviours may change with a shift to purchasing food products that have been certified via blockchain systems, for example.

As innovation increases and new foods enter the market, and as crises such as COVID-19 challenge society, the opportunities for food fraud rise. Therefore, food fraud mitigation and prevention are as much about industry and policy intervention as awareness, collaboration, and consumer knowledge. Only by coming together can we reduce food fraud, improve consumer trust, and make the food system safer for everyone. Collaboration is central to all our work at EIT Food, which spans the whole food value chain, and is vital to meet the big challenges we face. Together with our community, we will build an innovative and resilient food system that in turn creates a healthier society and planet.

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