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Food Fraud: More than just fighting the tip of the iceberg

International Akademie Fresenius Conference discussed new approaches to checking food authenticity

“Food fraud”, i.e. food scams and fake food, is one of the major challenges currently facing the food industry in the light of supply chains that stretch right around the world and ever more complex processing methods. On 24 and 25 October, an international Akademie Fresenius Conference in Frankfurt/Germany discussed new analytical methods that can be implemented in the laboratory and onsite at the production facility. Reports on these topics were provided by representatives from test laboratories and international food companies, such as Nestlé, General Mills and illycafé.

Company representatives spoke on their practical experience with rapid authentication tests for coffee and on identifying the ingredients used in meat products. In addition, the experts discussed which legal steps the individual EU states and the EU as a whole could take to combat the increase in food fraud.

Billions worth of damage

One of the most frequently used images on the slides and during the presentations held by the experts was the iceberg: Although scandals involving not marketable meat products, inadmissible additives to coffee and falsely-declared spices demonstrate over and over again just how big the danger of food fraud for the industry, the trade and the consumer is, the number of fake products that are never detected is actually much bigger. Franz Ulberth, Head of the Fraud Detection & Prevention Unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Geel, estimates the total damage caused by food fraud to amount to between 10 and 50 billion Euros every year. It is not just the total volume of substitutions, false declarations and food adulteration that is posing major challenges for laboratories and the authorities but above all their huge diversity. “There are too many fake products to be able to carry out cost-efficient individual tests. However, there are now alternatives.”, observed Bert Pöpping, Managing Director of the FOCOS consulting firm. Not only the multitude, but also the speed at which the methods of counterfeiters as well as those of testing laboratories and scientists change is rapid: “For these new methods, however, standardization is imperative,” says Bert Pöpping.

New focus required: Guaranteeing authenticity instead of investigating fraud

Many experts feel that the high level of complexity involved and the multitude of unknown factors that the monitoring bodies and analysts would have to look for requires a rethink and new goals. For Thomas Gude of Swiss Quality Testing Services (SQTS) it makes more sense to “use profiling techniques to assure food authenticity rather than to investigate for food fraud.” For example, the focus in the field of Food Contact Materials is shifting more and more to “non-target screening” so that testing also covers Non-Intentionally Added Substances (NIAS).

Blockchain – the new super weapon?

The implementation of blockchain technology promises noticeable improvements in the transparency and traceability of food adulteration and tampering. Simply put, blockchain is a digital ledger used throughout the supply chain which documents all the changes resulting from transactions between the players and links up data blocks using cryptographic processes. Petter Olsen of the Norwegian National Food Research Institute Nofima regards blockchain technology as offering the potential to significantly improve traceability, especially when it comes to documentation of transformations in the food supply chain. Even if some of these claims proved to be wrong, they at least will be traceable back to who made them. However, Petter Olsen warned against too much euphoria: “Many suppliers exaggerate when describing the advantages of the blockchain technology. Blockchain technology can improve existing traceability systems, it cannot replace them”.

Economic data and market anomalies used as indicators of the risk of Food Fraud

Britta Müller reported on how the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority (LGL) takes a closer look at the market environment as an early warning system for food fraud. In collaboration with statisticians from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, LGL experts have developed the “Import Screening for the Analysis of food Risks” (ISAR) analysis technique which can be used to examine the flow of food commodity imports for irregularities. This process involves recording changes in the prices and volume of food imports and relating these to the respective country of origin. For example, should the price development be above the anticipated level, this may be an evidence that there is likely to be an increase in the number of fraud cases. Any indicative results from the ISAR analysis are then evaluated with respect to their health, resp. fraud, risks once additional research has been carried out and expert evaluations obtained. If there is sufficient cause to suspect a health risk or the risk of fraud, expert panels are then set up at LGL to work on the topic in more detail. Should these suspicions be substantiated, targeted sampling or food business inspections may be carried out by the responsible bodies to clarify the situation. In the meantime, the LGS is also cooperating with the BVL and other federal states to establish this approach in German food monitoring.

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