Our Principal Karen Constable has been following food fraud news since 2015. Every week she personally reads, watches and listens to hundreds of articles, posts and journals about food fraud.
Here’s what she is predicting for food fraud for 2023:
- Organic fraud in USA – (a little) less likely
- Waste disposal fraud
- Document fraud as a new area of concern
- Sustainability claims ‘fraud’ – more likely
- Authenticity testing – improving
1) Organic fraud
Awareness of organic fraud has been increasing rapidly everywhere in the world. In the USA, that increased awareness has been accompanied by growing recognition of problems with the National Organic Program (NOP). These problems are related to enforcement and coverage. The NOP includes standards that define what can and cannot be labelled as ‘organic’, and it requires that products meet certain requirements in order to carry the USDA Organic seal.
There were a number of multi-year, very high volume frauds in the organic grain sector in the USA that have been discovered and prosecuted in recent years, including one perpetrated with corn grown in the mid-West and fraud in imported ‘organic’ soybeans. With some of those large operations exposed, the amount of fraudulent ‘organic’ bulk commodities should be reduced in the USA. The prosecutions may act as a deterrent to other would-be perpetrators.
The NOP rules have been strengthened so that they will apply to imported commodities and importing companies like brokers and traders. They also require that the organic status of bulk food in non-retail containers is correctly identified with respect to its organic status. There have also been updates related to the qualifications of organic inspectors and the rigour of on-site inspections.
Although the new rules are at least one year away, the market for organic commodities has been ‘put on notice’ and this should reduce the amount of organic food fraud in the USA.
2) Waste disposal fraud
Waste disposal fraud has (probably) been happening for decades, but we are becoming more aware of the risks. Waste fraud takes many forms but a typical scenario is one in which a food company contracts a waste company to securely destroy and dispose of goods that do not meet quality or safety parameters so that they cannot be diverted back to consumers. However when fraud occurs, the waste company sells the sub-standard food, or otherwise allows it to return to consumers.
In one recent example, damaged jars of food were diverted back to the legitimate marketplace by the company that had promised to destroy them (and issued a disposal certificate to the brand owner).
This type of fraud is not new, but awareness of potential fraud in the waste supply chain has increased. At the same time, food companies’ supplier approvals programs are more likely to include waste contractors than previously. This means that there could be less waste disposal fraud than before (hopefully!)
3) Food safety document fraud (a bigger worry than we first thought?)
Document fraud is nothing new. It is a key element in many types of food fraud. Falsified laboratory reports, fake organic certificates and even fake disposal declarations are all examples of document fraud.
In the context of food fraud, document fraud is most likely to support a profitable fraud, such as passing off conventional soybeans as ‘organic’ so they can be sold for a much higher price.
In ‘normal’ food frauds, then, the document fraud is just part of the package, and the documents do not directly make the food vulnerable.
There is one class of food, however, that has a special – and perhaps easily missed – food fraud vulnerability. These are foods that are not usually thought of as ‘high risk’ for food fraud, but that rely on authentic/true documents for critical food safety criteria.
An example is ready-to-eat cold, cooked chicken purchased by a sandwich manufacturer. A faked expiry date or falsified microbiological result on the certificate of analysis would place the sandwich company and its consumers at risk of serious consequences. Because the faked, forged or falsified documents in that scenario provide subtle economic advantages to the supplier, this type of scenario could be considered food fraud.
Such vulnerabilities could easily slip through the net of traditional food fraud assessments. For suppliers whose economic circumstances are getting tougher, the motivation to perpetrate ‘minor’ document frauds like falsifying microbiological tests could be getting stronger, potentially increasing the likelihood of such frauds occurring.
4) Problematic sustainability claims
Claims about the sustainability credentials of foods are on the rise, as consumers increasingly value such claims. Unfortunately, many green claims made about consumer goods have the potential to be misleading.
A United Kingdom government survey found 40 percent of such claims were problematic because of either non-accredited, own-brand logos; non-disclosure of environmentally harmful practices or ingredients; vague language; or lack of evidence to support claims such as ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural’.
Vague claims and own-brand logos do not necessarily constitute food fraud, however food businesses need to be careful about the integrity of the data they use to support claims they intend to make about their products or operations.
Claims about carbon neutrality, carbon net-zero and greenhouse gas emissions reductions need to be evidenced using data from the whole supply chain. This is where food companies can be vulnerable.
If a food company’s supplier provides incorrect data related to the carbon footprint of the material or service being purchased, the outcome of any emissions calculations done by the purchasing company will be incorrect. The result? The food company could be guilty of accidentally misrepresenting its sustainability status.
Other fraud pitfalls for food companies include fraudulent certification schemes and logos used by their suppliers, and errors in interpreting or complying with the varying green claim regulations in different markets.
Read more about the risks that come with carbon-neutral claims in Issue 61 of Karen’s newsletter The Rotten Apple and about consumers’ confusion with sustainable seafood claims in Issue 63.
5) Authenticity testing – more accessible, better expertise
Laboratories continue to improve their authenticity testing services to support medium-sized food businesses with food fraud detection. The level of food fraud knowledge and expertise in the food testing industry is getting better and more tests are becoming available.
The Food Authenticity Network’s (FAN) Centres of Expertise Program is making valuable contributions to the expertise and accessibility of food fraud tests. A FAN centre of expertise is a laboratory or academic institution with expertise in one or more types of authenticity tests.
This article originally appeared in The Rotten Apple newsletter on 20th February 2023.