You can also catch up with part one - how has food traceability evolved since horsegate? - or download our full white paper for an in-depth guide to this topic: Changing the face of food traceability.
Why is food fraud so common?
Olive oil does an excellent job of highlighting the criminal opportunity in food fraud. Cheap pomace oil – extracted from olive residue using chemicals – sells for 32.3p per 100ml, compared with £1.50 for extra virgin. Yet many consumers cannot recognise the difference, leaving a huge opportunity for food fraudsters to pass off the cheap stuff as the premium stuff.
This is by no means the only example. In the world of food fraud, cheese has been found to contain no cheese, ham has made from poultry scraps and honey is often diluted with syrup. Vodka is laced with methanol. Catfish masquerades as premium haddock. As recently as July 2015 a meat processing firm in Northern Ireland was fined £144,000 after it was found guilty of substituting premium meat ingredients with cheaper substitutes - such as heart and other offal.
This has obvious consequences for the consumer, but there are also huge financial implications for the food industry.
According to a 2014 report by the University of Portsmouth, it’s costing the UK’s food and drink manufacturers £11.2 billion a year. Tackle the problem and Britain’s food and drink industry could boost profitability to the tune of £4.48 billion.
Yet food fraud is by no means unique to the UK. It’s a global epidemic.
Between December 2013 and January 2014, Interpol ran a campaign targeting food fraud entitled Operation Opson III. As a result almost 100 people across 33 countries were arrested or detained. Officers impounded 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 80,000 biscuits and chocolate bars, 20 tonnes of spices and condiments, 485 tonnes of yellowfin tuna, 186 tonnes of cereals, 45 tonnes of dairy products and 42 litres of honey. Eleven months later Operation Opson IV resulted in the seizure of more than 2,500 tonnes of counterfeit food in just two months. The offending items included mozzarella, strawberries, eggs, cooking oil and dried fruit.
Food fraud and illicit trading - where genuine products are diverted from intended channels - is toxic. It damages brand reputation, erodes consumer faith in supply chains and sucks revenue out of legitimate businesses. It siphons tax revenues from governments, funds international crime organisations and puts consumer health in danger. A wider view of food supply chains is critical.
Preserve your integrity as a business.
“It's vital to know where your raw materials are coming from to make sure you can produce quality, safe products.”
Sterling Crew, Kolak Snack Foods
When you know where your product has been, it’s easier to isolate blame (and absolve your business from culpability) when something goes wrong. And when you keep track of exactly where your products go when they leave you, you can recall the exact products that have been affected by something unexpected - minimising lost revenue and keeping the matter out of the public eye.
Speed is crucial. Three decades ago food businesses had time to conduct investigations when things went wrong. Today the answers need to come instantly. If a retailer finds an unexpected substance in your food, you need to know whether they are telling the truth, how it got there, which of your products are affected and where they are in the supply chain. And you need to know PDQ.
“We need to know where our product has gone in the branded world, and we need to know where the raw material has come from. One step forward, one step back isn’t sufficient for us. If we just obey the legislation, it wouldn't meet the needs of our business.”
Sterling Crew, Kolak Snack Foods
Why is food fraud so hard to fight?
It’s not unusual for supply chains to extend through multiple countries. Sometimes food manufacturers and retailers are clueless as to the length of the supply chain they are part of - as exposed by the horse meat scandal. In a world trussed by global supply chains, it’s easy for fraudsters to find places to hide.
Adulterated food can be incredibly hard to detect, which means there’s a low risk of getting caught. When criminals are convicted, punishments rarely reflect the severity of the crime. There’s also the fact that food testing is expensive. In the UK testing is the jurisdiction of local authorities. But with adulterant tests costing up to £1,000, pitted against a backdrop of budget cuts, local authorities can’t afford to test on any meaningful scale.