Our guest author Alison Johnson of Food Forensics discusses how technology can assist food businesses to manage food fraud risks.
Food fraud is not a new phenomenon, there is evidence of food fraud dating back to Roman times with the switching of labels between French and Roman. Food Fraud, or Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA), is defined by the Food Standards Agency as occurring “when food is deliberately placed on the market, for financial gain, with the intention of deceiving the consumer”. The most common of which are the sale of food which is unfit and potentially harmful and the deliberate mis-description of foods.
The 2013 horsemeat scandal resulted in a reactive rush to DNA testing. With hindsight was it good value for money? Probably not, but the very raw risk of brand damage and loss of customer trust suddenly justified any expense. Since then most businesses have introduced DNA testing into their HACCP programmes but the WHICH? and FSA testing of lamb curries earlier this year, showing 30 per cent had non declared species present, illustrated that the issues have not gone away.
Microbiology, chemical composition for nutritional declarations and more recently DNA are now considered mainstream tests and most are covered within HACCP systems. What about origin or production claims? If you do not know where food comes from you cannot be sure it is safe.
Fraudsters are looking for a soft target, something where the premium is high but the chance of detection is low, origin and production methods continue to be easy money, but science is fighting back.
Food Forensics have developed new tests to check that the product origin and production methods are consistent with the claims. Stable Isotope Ratio Analysis (SIRA or Isotope testing) is being used to check the consistency of the isotopic fingerprint of the product with its stated origin or production method. All living things pick up a profile from the nutrients they consume. These are all subtly different depending on region, temperature, feeds etc. By profiling (chemical fingerprinting) samples of known origin we can create a "normal" profile against which unknown samples can be tested. This provides the basis for testing for consistency with, for example, a stated country or corn-fed chicken. While not completely a "proof of origin" test it provides a signpost, identifying higher risk areas for further investigations.
Isotope testing provides a deterrence, reduces the risk of becoming a victim of fraud and as a result reduce the food safety risk. In addition it is evidence based due diligence.
Since setting up Food Forensics in 2011 we have developed reference authentic datasets on a huge number of products; surprisingly every product category we have tested has highlighted issues. Food fraud is grossly underestimated as a risk and rarely features in business risk management despite the learning of horsemeat.
Does your business risk management plan identify food fraud as a risk? Is food fraud an identified risk in your HACCP? If not you need to act. It is your responsibility to prove adequate due diligence – can you?
Alison Johnson, Managing Director, Food Forensics
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