Has Covid-19 worsened the risk of food fraud?

13 September 2021, 07:35 AM
  • The pandemic’s outbreak shone a light on transparency in the food supply chain. Mike Seed, sales and product manager at Elementar UK, explores the food fraud risk today
Has Covid-19 worsened the risk of food fraud?

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges for speciality food retailers over the last year. With national lockdowns and trading restrictions impacting customer demand, regular sales channels and supply chain management, businesses have found it more difficult than ever to provide a consistent, high-quality service.

One of the most serious implications of the pandemic has been its effect in exacerbating the risk posed by food fraud. The presence of adulterated, mislabelled and low-quality products within the supply chain has always been a major problem for food retailers, but the disruptions to monitoring efforts and regulatory processes over the last year have exacerbated the issue.

With industry reports suggesting this heightened risk may persist for months to come, it is therefore essential for businesses to root out food fraud and put a stop to this damaging trend.

The pandemic’s impact on food fraud trends

Estimates from NFU Mutual indicate that food fraud costs the UK food and drink industry around £12 billion annually, due to the combined cost of overpayment for low-grade ingredients, the impact of unfair competition and the reputational damage that comes with being found to have sold substandard products. 

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, this problem has gotten worse. A report from Food Authenticity Network recently analysed more than 45,000 global food safety and fraud alerts logged by the Safety HUD database, finding that 90 more food fraud incidents were recorded in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, while 22 countries recorded an increased number of incidents.

Business improvement and standards company BSI also recently published its own Supply Chain Risk Insights report for 2021, noting that many nations – including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – experienced pandemic-related budgetary constraints last year that made it difficult to perform proper safety checks on food businesses, a trend that remains an issue in 2021 due to additional complications from the virus.

Additionally, a representative of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) stated during a session at the International Association for Food Protection’s European Symposium in April that the FSAI was forced to compromise on certain food legislation standards to maintain a focus on the most immediate threats to food safety, which they admitted had placed the nation’s food chain at greater risk of safety, quality and fraud issues.

The challenge for speciality food manufacturers

For speciality food businesses, the escalating risk of fraud requires additional vigilance. Even more so than standard food retailers, specialised outlets such as farm shops and delis are trusted by their customers to provide only the highest-quality, most authentic ingredients – a trust that is hard to build and easy to lose. 

In some ways, these businesses are less exposed to the risk of fraud, as their reliance on smaller or local suppliers makes their supply chains less complex and exposed. However, these shops are also much more likely to sell products such as high-end tea, wine, cheese, honey and meats, all of which are among the items most regularly targeted by fraudsters for adulteration or passing-off of lower-quality substitutes.

It is absolutely essential that speciality retailers are able to verify the providence, quality and authenticity of the products they sell, especially when they are imported from overseas and sold for a premium price. As such, the weaknesses exposed in international supply chains over the last year should be a real cause for concern.

How to stamp out food fraud

The trends outlined above demonstrate exactly why it is so important for businesses and regulators at every stage of the supply chain to invest properly in product testing and quality control, relying on food labs that utilise tried-and-tested processes to stamp out food fraud at every step.

Ways to identify food fraud include using elemental analysis or stable isotope analysis methods, which assess the unique chemical signatures or fingerprints of food samples to reveal vital insights into their origins, properties and production methods, such as:

• Identifying the geographic origins of meat, vegetables, wine and fruit juice, by looking at environmental variations in their water content or differences in their photosynthetic fingerprints
• Detecting illegal adulterants, such as C4 (cane, HFCS) and C3 (beet, rice) sugars, which are used to artificially sweeten honey
• Quantifying a product’s quality, such as the protein content of dough or the difference between standard and gluten-free starch

By ensuring their supply chains are fully secure and dealing only with suppliers who are able to commit to the very highest quality assurance standards, speciality food sellers will be able to provide their customers with total confidence in the products they buy. These methods ensure that authentic products can be distinguished from fraudulent ones, that exclusive product categories – such as Manuka honey or real Champagne – can be protected, and that shoppers are given reliable product information to inform their purchasing choices.

Across many sectors, it seems clear that the challenges brought about by the pandemic during 2020 will persist in 2021, and perhaps beyond. It is therefore the responsibility of food retailers to adjust quickly to this new normal, and make sure that they are doing everything in their power to safeguard their customers and business from the damage food fraud can cause.

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