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    Food fraud — a growing threat to private brands

    Vulnerability assessment, traceability key to combating food misrepresentation

    By Carolyn Schierhorn, Ensemble IQ
    Head U.K. food crime official Andy Morling explains how the European horse meat scandal raised awareness of food fraud.

    Food fraud can have a dire impact on food safety, especially when products deemed allergen-free are adulterated with the substance in question, harmful microorganisms flourish as a result of noncompliant practices, or carcinogens become introduced into the food supply. Even when not a public health hazard, the crime of food fraud compromises a product’s authenticity, an attribute of increasing value to consumers. 

    Fortunately, vulnerability assessment throughout the supply chain, coupled with more stringent traceability measures, helps to mitigate this threat to the global food supply, experts contend.

    Because they deal with multitudinous private brand suppliers, grocery retailers with store brands need to be aware of this growing problem — one that could surge as consumers become ever more demanding about the ingredients in their food and willing to pay higher prices for clean label, free-from, sustainable, locally sourced and premium-quality products.

    Unlike food tampering intended to cause public harm or terror, food fraud’s main motivation is economic gain, points out John Spink, PhD, director of the Food Fraud Initiative at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. A clandestine crime that is difficult to detect, the deliberate adulteration or misrepresentation of food costs the global food industry nearly $50 billion a year, according to Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, a public health and safety organization.

    Although it has existed since ancient times, food fraud historically hasn’t been taken seriously, says Andy Morling, head of food crime for the London-based National Food Crime Unit, a division of the U.K. Food Standards Agency. Globally, food crime sees “very low levels” of reporting and victim awareness, he noted during a panel discussion at the recent Food Safety Summit in Rosemont, Ill.

    In the United Kingdom, this all changed with the “horse meat scandal” of 2013, in which horse meat DNA was discovered in frozen beef patties and other products such as frozen lasagna and frozen spaghetti with beef Bolognese sauce — predominantly own-brand items sold at Tesco, Aldi and other European grocery retailers.

    Originating from horse slaughterhouses in Romania and Poland, the horse meat was deliberately relabeled as beef later in the supply chain. A Dutch meat wholesaler was convicted for his role in the Europewide scandal, which involved a number of individuals and companies.

    “This was big news,” Morling stressed. “We kind of love our horses in the U.K. as you do in the United States. And the thought of eating one, although our European neighbors do on a regular basis, was just something that we were not prepared to do.”

    As Morling explained, the public pain caused by this particular incident was two-fold: Not only had criminals infiltrated the food supply, but also the idea that food was somehow inviolable was forever put to rest. What’s more, the massive scale of the fraud, “believed to involve organized crime at a serious level and scope,” shook up the country.

    “It really made the government wake up to a problem that had been brewing for many years,” Morling said.

    Global in scope, olive oil fraud has also seized the public’s attention in recent years, with the championing of the Mediterranean diet as the world’s most healthful driving consumer demand for extra-virgin olive oil. Indeed, a sizeable proportion of “extra-virgin” olive oil from Italy is adulterated, not truly extra-virgin, not produced in Italy and, in some cases, not even olive oil.

    It’s easy to imagine organized crime and profit-hungry companies exploiting for economic gain other contemporary consumer preferences — misrepresenting ordinary food as organic, non-GMO, fair trade or vegan, for example.

    Assessing vulnerabilities

    Adopting food fraud preventive controls, including vulnerability assessment, is a certification requirement of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) that will take effect in 2018. “If you are going to be GFSI-compliant, it is not optional to do a vulnerability assessment and have a food fraud prevention plan,” Spink stressed during the panel discussion. “If you don’t do this, you’re not [going to be] allowed to stay in business and people are not going to buy from you if your product is subject to a recall.”

    The GFSI’s “Issue 7 Guidance Document” on food fraud specifically requires GFSI-recognized organizations to have a “documented food fraud vulnerability assessment procedure” in place to identify potential areas of vulnerability and prioritize food fraud mitigation measures.

    The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) also addresses food fraud. In addition, fraud prevention and vulnerability assessment standards are being considered for inclusion in Codex Alimentarius, the world food code. What’s more, public companies must now report the financial risks associated with food fraud vulnerability under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, Spink noted.

    As a part of enterprise risk management, food fraud prevention “can be very overwhelming if you don’t break it down into bite-size chunks,” observed panelist Peter Begg, a former senior director for global quality at Mondelez International.

    Although food companies for years have had measures in place that partially address food fraud, “having a holistic, systematic plan focused on food fraud is relatively new for the industry,” Begg said.

    But addressing food fraud, specifically the economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of food products, is not just about compliance with new standards, Begg emphasized. It’s about “protecting your company and its brands from potential risks.”

    To learn more about food fraud, readers can visit http://www.foodfraud.msu.edu

    By Carolyn Schierhorn, Ensemble IQ
    • About Carolyn Schierhorn

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