Organised crime is switching to food fraud from activities such as drug trafficking, because detection methods are less developed and penalties are softer.
Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk, former Trading Standards officer and food legislation expert Stuart Shotton warned the food industry and those that policed it to be prepared for increased illegal activity.
“Criminals are moving away from drug offences to counterfeiting [food ingredients], because they are looking at severely reduced jail times. You are looking at 10 years plus for drugs, whereas it’s half that for counterfeiting at least.”
Food fraud includes products falsely claiming to include only certified organic ingredients, certain types of fish being passed off as others and products claiming false countries of origin.
Other common examples involve watering down fruit juice concentrate or replacing premium ingredients such as blood orange with other varieties. The traditional trade in counterfeit alcohol is also prevalent.
Experts are also concerned about the threat posed to human health from counterfeit ingredients. “A common substitute for alcohol [in counterfeit booze] is methanol, which can cause blindness and kill,” said Shotton. Other fraudulent products could contain “10 to 50 times the amount of additives” in their legitimate versions.
Since industry food safety and hygiene standards were not adhered to when making such products, this raised further risks, he said.
At a recent conference on food and authenticity, organised by advisory and consultancy body FoodChain Europe on November 1, Shotton claimed authorities were battling to keep up with the fraudsters.
He said: “Central government agencies are aware that food fraud and food authenticity issues are prevalent within the UK food sector, but the actual scale of the issue is unknown.
"This can pose a real challenge to everyone and I believe that there is a potential knowledge gap on the issues in relation to food fraud among the UK enforcement community.”
The Food Standards Agency provides funding and the secondment of experts for food fraud and authenticity investigations to those authorities that request assistance. But our experience suggests that knowledge of the methods available for the detection of food fraud is not as widely known, he added.
Shotton said methods include polymerase chain reaction and stable isotope testing. He was also concerned that Trading Standards officials did not see food as a priority area when it came to clamping down on counterfeiting.
Strategic marketing consultant Jenny Cotton, who has extensive experience working within blue chip grocery firms, said food manufacturers unwittingly caught supplying products made using counterfeit ingredients faced harsh penalties. Consequently, they needed to keep a tight rein on due diligence and all aspects of the supply chain.
“Traceability is key – monitor, consider and act,” said Cotton. “Advice will be needed from a range of sources – government, private, formal and informal, market audit is the technique used to identify and monitor trends. It works because it is rigorous and repeatable.
“ It can protect the brand-owner by indicating changes from expectation, necessary or unintended variances from plan and any hazard warnings. Also, by having a system in place, it can be used to demonstrate due processes have been achieved when challenged.”