The horsemeat scandal of 2013 prompted action from the food industry and (some) governments against food fraud. Ten years later, have we made progress? Yes!
The United Kingdom created the Food Industry Intelligence Network, the Food Authenticity Network, which is now global, and the National Food Crime Unit (UK) on the recommendations of Prof Chris Elliott in his review of the crisis, which was commissioned by the UK government.
Chris recently wrote about the progress we have made on food fraud in the past decade in New Food Magazine. He is positive about the gains we have made since 2013.
“The response from industry and government to defend the nation against fraudsters and indeed organised crime in the food sector has been enormously beneficial and makes life far more difficult for criminals.” Chris Elliott writing in New Food Magazine
We have made great progress since 2013, but it’s easy to forget how far our industry has come in our fight against food fraud. We are now paying more attention to food fraud and we are much more aware of its potential to hurt consumers and brands. There are more tools and technologies available to food businesses to detect and deter food fraud than in 2013. Analytical test methods, equipment and expertise are (slowly) becoming cheaper and more accessible.
Back in 2013 species identification tests were not routinely performed on red meat – the horsemeat-for-beef issue was only discovered because a sharp-eyed food inspector in Ireland noticed discrepancies on the labels and cartons of frozen “beef” at a small import-export business. At the time, the head of the Irish Food Safety Authority (FSAI) was “astounded” and thought there had been a mistake in the testing when the first sets of results were received, which showed almost 30 percent horsemeat in the “beef”.
These days it’s easy to have meat tested to determine its species and there are cost-effective test kits available for both raw and cooked meat.
However, the ‘bad guys’, as Prof Elliott says, won’t stop trying to make money from food fraud. It can be very profitable and it carries a low risk of prosecution and punishment compared to other nefarious activities like smuggling drugs across international borders. One commentator estimated that it is three times more profitable to make and sell ‘fake’ olive oil than to smuggle cocaine (source).
In recent years there have been frequent claims in the media that food fraud is getting worse or is an increasing problem, but there is no evidence to support those claims. Food fraud is, by its nature, difficult to measure. As an industry, we are certainly talking about food fraud more, and there are more frequent reports about food fraud, but this doesn’t mean it is more prevalent.
We do need to remain vigilant, of course, because food fraud is not going away. One risk is that as big food companies and wealthy countries pay more attention to food fraud, the fraudsters will increasingly target commodities, companies and regions where there is less oversight – the “low-hanging fruit”. These are the areas that are increasingly at risk as well-resourced companies increase scrutiny of their supply chains.
In some regions, where consumers and businesses are experiencing economic hardship, there is increasing motivation for previously legitimate food businesses to “cut corners” and for consumers to accept food from questionable sources and this also increases the risks.
As an industry, we are more aware of food fraud than before the horsemeat scandal, and we now have better tools and systems for keeping our consumers and our brands safe.
However, with well-resourced food companies working harder to deter and prevent food fraud in their supply chains, other businesses in the food sector will become more attractive targets for bad actors.
Don’t let your food company be the “low-hanging fruit” for food fraud perpetrators; keep being vigilant about the risk of food fraud in your supply chain and within your own company.
*** This post originally appeared in Issue #72 of The Rotten Apple Newsletter ***