Preventing food fraud

Food fraud, like the horsemeat scandal, is deliberate illegal behaviour around food, aimed at economic gain. How can we prevent it?

It is estimated that around 5 - 10% of food is defrauded worldwide. Legally, it is still in its infancy. There was never any real attention for it. The RASFF (Rapid Alert System) did mention fraud cases, but these were only related to food safety. Fraud goes further than that. There is administrative fraud, such as selling normal ham for Parma ham or regular meat for organic meat, and there is physical fraud, such as substituting an ingredient for a cheaper alternative, such as horse for beef, or laundering unsuitable foodstuffs, such as condemned carcasses or animal by-products.

Photo by Tara Winstead via Pexels

Food fraud and the new control regulation

With the advent of the new control regulation 625/2017, food fraud will be dealt with by law. Companies are obliged to make a risk analysis of the possibilities of food fraud in the chain. This is also referred to as VACCP, whereby use is made of the principles for guaranteeing food safety: HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points).

According to the NVWA, there are various types of perpetrator of fraud. These are companies under supervision, fraudulent companies that deliberately try to stay under the radar of the NVWA, outsiders such as persons or companies that have no link with the food industry and companies with organised crime. The front end of the business looks legitimate, but at the back end the processes are designed to commit fraud.

Fraudsters, of course, do not want people to get sick from the product, because that is what attracts attention. Tumbling chicken and not mentioning the added water on the label or Russian salad with less meat than mentioned on the label is not a food safety risk. It is, however, deception whereby the consumer is cheated and unfair competition. If the fraudster covers up substances in the product with a risk for the consumer, such as the illegal addition of nitrite, there is a food safety risk.

The horsemeat scandal came to the fore through RASFF because it (also) had to do with food safety. Our food is safer than ever, but because of fraud consumer confidence is not high according to the EU Council. And that is why they are coming up with additional advice and requirements alongside the new Control Regulation. Now AAC (Assistance and Cooperation System) and RASFF are working together intensively to increase the chance of being caught. By the end of 2020, AAC will be fully integrated into RASFF. From 14 December 2019, all Member States will be obliged to report all suspicions in the food chain via their own IT tool, the AAC-FF system. This system has been in place since 2015 and counts more and more fraud cases every year. For example, in 2016 there were still 157 reports, in 2019 there were 292. Now with the obligation to report, this is bound to increase further. 

Top 5 notifications of food fraud

The top 5 categories of fraud reports in the EU in 2019 are: 1. Fats and oils, 2. Fish and fish products, 3. Meat and meat products, 4. Fruit and vegetables and on 5. Chicken and chicken products. Most fraud in 2019 was committed by misleading labels (47%) such as organic, followed by substituting cheaper ingredients (20%) such as pig or horse for beef, and illegal act (16%) such as adding nitrite in fresh meat, document fraud (15%) such as absent, false or manipulated and misuse of protected names such as 'extra virgin' oil. In the Netherlands, food fraud mainly involves meat (products), (fish) products, animal feed and eggs. 

Food fraud is not a legal concept. The NVWA can only act legally if the priority is food safety in relation to deception and food fraud. With the usual inspections, these kinds of cases hardly ever come to light. That is why the NVWA has set up the Intelligence and Investigation Service Division (NVWA-IOD). It works together with the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The NVWA-IOD focuses mainly on complex, chain-oriented, organised and/or international food fraud that damages trust, endangers food safety or harms animal and plant health. Such as the horse meat scandal, subsidy fraud and illegal trade in veterinary medicines.

Karen Gussow, coordinating specialist inspector at the NVWA-IOD indicates that it works better to increase the chance of being caught than to increase the fines. She wants to do this by combining external reports with data analyses, searches and seizures. In her thesis, she writes that this approach leads to the discovery of well-revealed fraud.

Although fraudsters actively fall outside the scope of the NVWA, making it difficult for them to provide an overall picture of the total volume, they do note that there are developments which indicate that food fraud is on the increase. The possibilities are increasing, for example, due to the advent of the circular economy, whereby waste is turned into foodstuffs again, such as beer made from manure. And profitability is increasing, for example, due to the emergence of regional and local products.

Making a VACCP is therefore an art in itself. Companies which pay little attention to this have a greater chance of being (unconsciously) misled by fraudsters who have an eye for this. Tricky, because in case of unconscious deception you are also guilty of food fraud because your VACCP is not good (enough). Well, legislation is becoming increasingly clever.

Published in Vleesmagazine October 2020

Yvon Bemelman