The Fishy Business of Food Fraud

March 27, 2019 David Garforth

From boat-to-plate or farm-to-fork food fraud is a global problem. Tackling the issue is no mean feat as the complexity of global food systems guarantees that not only will food fraud persist, it will continue to evolve to counter measures introduced to stop it.

Ocean advocacy group Oceana made uneasy headlines when it released the findings of its investigations into fraud in the U.S. seafood industry earlier this month. The group tested 449 fish from more than 250 restaurants, seafood markets and grocery stores across the country and found that 21% of samples were mislabeled. That equates to one out of every three establishments visited selling mislabeled seafood.

This latest report into food fraud is not by far the first, or the last, headline grabbing documentary evidence of fraud through mislabelling and species substitution. In 2013 the now infamous horse meat scandal erupted across Europe, which saw at least 30 tons of unidentified meat passed off as beef. This was a revelation for consumers and was potentially the first major food fraud incident that reached the consumer consciousness.

Last December’s New York Attorney General report that revealed “rampant mislabeling” of fish in New York state, and in March 2017 the Brazilian beef bribes hit the headlines, highlight the extensive problem of the crime, estimated to be worth US$50 billion annually, in both national and international markets.

Food fraud is a challenge that is blighting the industry and remains a significant threat to all food businesses. Global consumer trust is already on the decline and with each headline grabbing incident, the pressure is mounting for retailers and manufacturers to offer full and transparent disclosure on their products.

The complexity of the modern food supply chains provides more ways for food fraud to go undetected despite improved methods to detect it. Food businesses small and large are having to invest more and more in checks, compliance and testing to demonstrate they are legitimate and trustworthy. A single incident can permanently destroy a brand, cause long-term industry-wide losses and can close off export markets.

In research SAI Global conducted for its Reputational Risk Index, a staggering 73% of consumers said that they are less trusting of products and retailers embroiled in safety violation scandals. And when asked which industries you trust the most, only 7% of respondents put their trust in food industries.

Food fraud will persist, and it will evolve to counter the new measures introduced to stop it. Regulations are seldom over-arching in an internationally traded supply chain, need enforcement which means resources and despite the best efforts, often are reactionary and after the event. 

"Food fraud is a challenge that is blighting the industry and remains a significant threat to all food businesses." 

Dave Garforth 
Senior Consultant at SAI Global

 

Unpacking Food Fraud

The presence of multiple players and dynamic supply chains ensure that there is no single model for moving food from producer to consumer, and there is no single solution for combating food fraud.

Every food product and every market contains some level of risk of food fraud – from the innocuous adding extra water (glazing) to frozen products or extra soil on vegetables to make them weigh heavier through to the addition of harmful adulterants to infant formula. The presence of risk can be seen along the entire supply chain from production overrun to the actions of disgruntled employees who are intent on ruining a brand. The potential for fraud must also be viewed as opportunistic driven by factors such as supply shortages, ease of substitution, competitor pressure, market position, price and geopolitical factors.

Protecting supply chains from fraud is challenging. It requires partnering with reputable suppliers that operate to high standards and practices. But are good intentions enough?  Unlikely, and unless operators have full visibility of their supply chains, good intentions may not stand up in court. Visibility of supply chains means having access to much greater levels of information. Information on products, their ingredients, the processes involved in manufacture and their origin.

In complex and dynamic supply chains, this means active participation by all steps in the chain who share verifiable information in order to protect the chain from adulterated products or fraudulent practices.  

So, whilst food fraud remains a glaring problem and one that is not going to be solved overnight, what is clear is that there is a need to protect consumers by strengthening the food industry’s ability to detect and combat fraud. Compliance, regulations, food systems and second- and third-party audits to reputable standards are commonplace, but the question remains… can we do more?

 

About the Author

David Garforth

Dave Garforth is a senior consultant with SAI Global. He has over 25 years’ experience in the seafood industry including auditing, research, training, trade, fish feed and standard development. He has a Degree in Fisheries and Master’s in Aquaculture from University College Cork and is a committed and enthusiastic advocate for environmental sustainability.

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