What is Food Fraud and Why is it Important

By Aniket Choudhuri

Food fraud is the deliberate misrepresentation of food products for the purpose of economic gain. This can be done in several ways, such as: mislabelling or selling a low-quality product as a premium product and adulterating or mixing premium products with less expensive ingredients. It can pose serious health risks if, for example, unidentified allergens or hazardous materials are added to food products. It can also have an economic impact on the buyer (for example, paying for a product that is actually of lower quality).

Food fraud is an emerging issue in Canada and around the world. In 2019, the U.S Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated that food fraud may cost the global food industry $10 – 15 billion per year; some estimates put that number at closer to $70 billion! Food fraud includes what we call the sub-category of Economically Motivated Adulteration, or EMA.

To better understand the concept of food fraud, we must first differentiate it in relation to the commonly used terms in the food industry such as food safety, quality, and food defense.

Food quality and food safety” incidents are unintentional, as the food manufacturer is not motivated to create these incidents. “Food defense” is an intentional act with the motivation to create harm in the form of economic, public health or terror. An example of this would be a disgruntled employee or consumer who is trying to harm the company.

Food fraud is an intentional act with motivation for economic gain. Food fraudsters operate in secrecy, and actively seek to avoid detection. They are often participants from within the legitimate (food producers, manufacturers, or suppliers) supply chain waiting for an opportunity to conduct fraud. They often develop very complex and intelligent actions that bypass the very systems we use to evaluate the safety of the food.

Types of Food Fraud

Here are some of the types of food fraud and associated examples:

  1. Counterfeiting – substitution of ingredients and products with similar packaging or the mixing of inferior quality ingredients to increase the volume of products, e.g., counterfeit spices (saffron, oregano, pepper) being mixed with different materials.
  2. Adulteration – adding ingredients like sugar or sweeteners to honey or maple syrup to produce a similar taste while adding volume or, in the case of baby formula, adding melamine to reach the desired “protein” count.
  3. Dilution – olive oil mixed with other types of oil, wine with grape blends, and fruit juices diluted in water then mixed with other ingredients to produce a similar taste while increasing volume.
  4. Mislabeling – examples are cases of horse meat mixed with beef but labeled and sold as beef, organic food being sold but found to have traces of “non-organic” ingredients, and mislabeled seafood being sold in the market.

In a 20-year analysis of reported food fraud between 1997 and 2017 in the beef supply chain, researchers have found counterfeiting to be the most common type of fraud. Food fraud in the beef supply chain made global headlines in 2013, when horsemeat was identified in prepared frozen and meat products that were said to contain beef. The Horsemeat scandal or ‘Horsegate’, exposed vulnerabilities in the European Beef supply chain. These included mass product recalls, a downturn in beef sales and economic losses for many unrelated to the scandal.

How Can You Prevent Food Fraud

Food fraud is characterized by deceit and often perpetrated by criminal groups which are well prepared to avoid detection. This makes it difficult to prevent, but there is growing awareness that greater action needs to be taken.

As with any major challenge in the food industry, true success can only come from joint action on the part of industry regulators and individual businesses. However, there are several ways in which your business can protect itself from falling victim to food fraud. As per CFIA, here are some ways that the industry can combat food fraud:

  1. Know the laws and meeting the requirements
  2. Verify the authenticity of ingredients used in the food manufacturing process
  3. Obtain food products from trusted suppliers (see Supplier Food Safety Assurance Program)
  4. Follow good importing and manufacturing practices
  5. Keep records that track the path of food in the supply chain
  6. Provide adequate training and supervision for employees
  7. Alert the CFIA in cases of suspected food fraud
  8. Provide information to consumers through truthful labelling
  9. Address concerns from consumers about misrepresented food