The many faces of food fraud

by Donna Berry
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CHICAGO – Food fraud comes in many shapes and sizes, and unfortunately occurs more often than many may imagine. Consumers rely on marketers to tell the truth. Sometimes honest mistakes happen, while other times they are intentional, usually for economic gain. Increasingly “fresh” and “local” menus — at both retail and foodservice — are an invitation to skimp by deception, with using mainstream, less expensive foods in place of such premium ingredients as those designated as organic, Fair-Trade, free-range, etc. 

Donna Berry
Donna Berry

In the big picture of food fraud, such deceptions are minor to recent headline grabbers such as horsemeat in ground beef, melamine in pet food and infant formula and Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

Michigan State Univ., (MSU) East Lansing, Mich., has made an investment in preventing food fraud with its Food Fraud Initiative, a collaboration point for a range of stakeholders, including industry, domestic and international agencies, associations and other academics. The university has not only defined the term “food fraud,” but also is helping the United States and other countries establish strategies to fight it.

In the Dec. 15, 2015, issue of Food Chemistry Journal, the MSU research team addressed food fraud and provides a definition with interpretation and translations in Russian, Korean and Chinese. The paper also tackles a system-wide focus that could lead to prevention.

Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY, spoke with the paper’s co-authors John Spink, director of the Food Fraud Initiative and assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Doug Moyer, assistant professor of public health in the College of Human Medicine, about the prevalence of food fraud and how it can be prevented.

Where does food fraud fit into the overarching principle of food protection?

John Spink: Food fraud is defined as intentionally using deception for economic gain involving food. It includes what we call the sub-category of Economically Motivated Adulteration, or EMA. To explain the topic in more detail we developed the Food Protection Matrix. Food fraud is a unique concept that has different basic prevention characteristics than for food quality, food safety or food defense.

Food quality and food safety incidents are unintentional, as the food manufacturer is not motivated to create these incidents and there is no criminal conducting this act. Food defense is an intentional act with the motivation to create harm in the form of economic, public health or terror. An example is a disgruntled employee or consumer who is trying to harm the company. Another example is someone trying to create panic in the marketplace. The motivation can be similar to an arsonist who is seeking to create panic for their own excitement.

Food fraud is an intentional act with motivation for economic gain. Food fraudsters are often clandestine, stealthy and actively seek to avoid detection. They are often participants from within the legitimate (food producers, manufacturers or suppliers) supply chain and are patient and wait for an opportunity. They often develop very complex and intelligent actions that circumvent the very systems we use to evaluate the safety of the food. They are not trying to get caught.

John Spink, Michigan State Univ.
John Spink is the director of Michigan State Univ.’s Food Fraud Initiative, which is a collaboration point to help governments, manufacturers and retailers prevent food deception for economic gain.

What actions qualify as food fraud?

Doug Moyer: Food fraud is a collective term that encompasses the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain. Our research has not expanded into misbranding or marketing fraud where a producer overstates performance attributes or violates ‘‘truth in advertising’’ laws or “country of origin” claims.

The vast majority of food fraud incidents do not cause a public health threat, but since the contaminants or adulterants are undetected, there is the potential for a very large and dangerous food safety incident. Also, beyond consumers being outraged at being financially cheated, a food fraud incident undermines consumer confidence or trust in the food government authorities, social harmony, the premium status of country’s food supply, and the value of both domestic and exported products.

Please describe the many levels of food fraud.

Spink: There’s the recreational fraudster, such as the consumer who transfers a premium chocolate bar into the wrapper of a mainstream, lower-priced chocolate bar in order to pay less for the better product. Then there’s the plant manager who realizes an entire shift of product was under filled, just a little, and chooses to not issue a recall. Both of these types of occasional fraud acts are illegal, but in the big scheme of things, nothing compared to the occupational fraud where a meat processor who intentionally, and on a regular basis, adds scrap product as filler to reduce the amount of higher-priced ingredient in processed meat. There’s also the professional fraudster, whose crime fully finances a lifestyle. This could be a criminal organization that creates counterfeit packaging and manufactures complete products that violate the trademark.

Doug Moyer, Michigan State Univ.
Doug Moyer is an assistant professor in the Division of Public Health at Michigan State Univ. He works with the university’s Food Fraud Initiative to help protect consumers around the world from purchasing and consuming foods that are deliberately misrepresenting.

How prominent is food fraud in today’s global marketplace?

Moyer: Food fraud vulnerability is complex and rapidly evolving. With so many levels to food fraud, you can imagine that it is more prevalent than one would like to believe. Further, as we become a more global society, there’s more opportunities to be a fraudster because of language confusion and varied laws.

Food fraud is so challenging and complex that to protect consumers there must be a shift from compliance to prevention. Prevention concepts reduce the amount of costs, resources, challenges or stress involved in arrests and prosecution. They have a foundation in business quality processes such as Six Sigma or food hazard analysis and critical control point programs. While assessing end results is important, it is more efficient to identify control points where product problems occur.

Food fraud prevention sounds more like a government program than a university project. Why did Michigan State get involved in this effort?

Spink: You are right. It is very unique that researchers collaborated and defined the basic concepts of food fraud before governments adopted their own laws and regulations. Many international laws are being developed and food fraud efforts are under way by private industry and by non-governmental organizations. We believed that establishing and publishing basic definitions was important as global food fraud incidents were becoming better known. We also recognized the importance of translating these definitions to other languages, specifically for emerging import and export markets. The idea for this translation occurred during a ‘‘Problems in Food Safety’’ conference held in the summer of 2013 at Moscow State Univ. for Food Production in Moscow, Russia. These efforts are more than a translation of definitions. It includes interpretation with examples so that players in the global food chain have a deeper understanding of the concepts.

Moyer: For governments to begin addressing the issue, they needed a credible source they could reference: an academic source rather than a food association that could potentially be perceived to have biased views. Getting involved in the issue at the earliest stage has established MSU as one of the key sources for government agencies and company leaders. We are already collaborating with many other countries and serving as members on their food fraud teams.

For more information on MSU’s Food Fraud Initiative, please follow this link.

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