Food fraud – one of the big winners during the COVID pandemic
During the coronavirus pandemic, food fraud has been on the rise – but this is just the beginning, warns Professor Chris Elliott.
Worldwide, the scale of food fraud is estimated to be around $50 billion a year; a massive industry and one that sets out to cheat and deceive consumers and businesses alike.
For the past few months, myself and others have been cautioning that the COVID pandemic will be an enormous opportunity for those who engage in this form of cheating to upscale their operations. These warnings have come at a time where many systems – responsible for checking, inspecting, auditing and testing supply chains around the world – have either been greatly scaled back or totally collapsed. Furthermore (and understandably), food companies and, indeed, entire countries, are much more preoccupied with trying to ensure an adequate food supply, rather than confirming their suppliers are all delivering 100 percent genuine and authentic food.
However, a stark reminder of the sheer scope of food fraud came our way last week with the publication of the Opson 2020 report. For those not familiar this is a jointly coordinated investigation into food fraud led by Interpol and Europol and involves agencies across more than 80 countries.
In its ninth report, which spanned from December 2019 to June 2020 (the pandemic period), it revealed that 19 organised crime groups were dismantled and over 400 arrests made. This perhaps gives a flavour for the scale of such operations and organised crime involved in the global food system. The range of foods types included in the report (eg, cereals, grains, meat, coffee, tea, spices and dairy) highlights that virtually any type of food product can be a target.
Perhaps time for another stark warning from myself – I imagine, this report simply scratches the surface of fraudulent activities during the pandemic. Over the next six to 12 months, many more cases of the involvement of organised crime in the global food system will likely emerge.
Regulatory agencies and a wide range of food companies try hard to combat this criminality, and a variety of systems to detect and defend against food fraud have been implemented to varying degrees of rigor and success. Like any type of crime, to think it can be eradicated or ignored is extremely naive. Many things will change in the world food system due to COVID, and among these is the opportunity to made fraud more difficult to perpetrate. Here, I must declare an interest as not only am I am advising quite a number of businesses about this but also actively engaged in developing such systems.
I believe companies should consider capitalising on the digitisation of supply chains, which has been recently accelerated due to COVID. Many of the businesses I work with are either actively engaged in this or thinking about starting the process. But a strong note of caution; digital systems are also open to fraud and trusting these without the appropriate levels of robust verification would be a huge mistake. This is where my research comes in…my excellent team, in partnership with different companies, are developing ways of testing many types of food for contamination and adulteration using low cost, real-time technologies that can be deployed at points vulnerable to fraud across supply chains. This year we hope to start to roll out our systems of tracking and tracing and measuring. We had planned this for some time, but COVID has made it 10 times more important.