This article originally appeared in World Food Regulation Review, Vol. 28, Number 9, February 2019.
The European Union (EU) succeeded in implementing one of the world’s highest standards of food safety. But each food scandal brings to light new gaps in the legislation and enforcement. After the Spanghero case (the so-called “horse meat scandal”), it is time again for public bodies to propose further steps to protect both food business operators and consumers against food fraud.
In response to the mad cow crisis (so-called “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE”), the European Commission created in 2002 a specific legal framework for food law. Every food business operator along the food chain, from the farm to the fork, must commit themselves to selling only 100% healthy and safe food.
Traceability has also been strengthened, during manufacturing, but also upstream (ingredients used) and downstream (customers to whom the products are delivered). In 2013, the horse meat crisis showed how creative fraudsters can be in finding ways to circumvent the broad and strict rules enforced in the EU. It brought to light the absolute necessity of cross-border cooperation and a European network to fight against food fraud was created. But the EU must go further and actions be systematized.
Agro-criminality is a polymorphous and discreet phenomenon. In recent years, Europol, Interpol and a large number of countries have been carrying out operations under the code name Opson in order to dismantle criminal networks.
According to the 2018 report, more than 9.7 million liters of beverages and 3,620 tons of counterfeit food products were seized in 67 countries in four months. The specificity of food fraud is that the consumer is a victim, unlike someone who knowingly buys a fake handbag. In the agribusiness sector, fraud is much more dispersed, more discreet than a drug cartel.
For instance, when a small business faces raw materials issues, it decides to buy somewhere else, cheaper, “just once”. A trader who is willing to release a larger margin provides, without saying it, horse meat instead of beef. In most of cases, it is far from being a real organized crime. Most affected products are those with high margins such as wine, spices, meat or fish. In practice, you take a product out of the trash and make it appear more attractive and put it back on the market, or you lower the cost of the raw material by substituting it for something cheaper.
For instance, honey can be falsified with sugar syrup, olive oil can be cut with oils of lesser quality. Tuna or salmon is soaked in acid to hide their bad taste, and then in chemicals to give them a beautiful color. In this case, it is a food labelling fraud, just like alteration of the “use by” date. This may just result in a lower quality product but it can also, in some cases, prove to be a serious threat for public health.
At the moment, it is up to Member states to decide whether an infringement of EU food rules is considered to be fraud and should be sentenced. In France, the Hamon law has revised the sanctions upwards, increasing the fines up to 10% of the annual average turnover of the fraudulent company. The EU could improve the fight against food fraud by giving a European definition of what is a food fraud, and especially harmonize criminal sanctions in the European Union and make them much more dissuasive.