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Taking the fight against food fraud forward

Posted: 29 April 2021 | | No comments yet

Following the success of Food Integrity 2021, Professor Chris Elliott reflects on some of the key takeaways, with particular focus on food fraud.

Chris' Corner

The Food Integrity conference last week was, in my opinion (and many I’ve spoken to), an outstanding success. So many different aspects of food integrity were discussed and debated by so many.

For this column, I wanted to focus on the topic of food fraud, a subject that I take a very strong interest in. I participated in a number of excellent panel discussions last week with leading experts in the field. It was evident from the amount of questions we received during these sessions that a large number of the conference attendees were also very interested in this topic.

To me there were a number of very important take home messages, and I want to try and summarise them, firstly as an aide memoire and secondly, so we can review progress in about a year’s time at the 2022 Food Integrity conference.

Food fraud drivers and helpful tools at our disposal

We face a number of ongoing challenges when it comes to food fraud and Covid has not helped the situation by placing huge pressure on our supply chains. The constant, and in some cases, increased cost pressures suppliers encounter along the chain has also opened up opportunities for fraud.

Recognising the main drivers for fraud does allow companies and regulators to think about how best to mitigate against the risks. Like all forms of criminal activity, prevention is always better than detection, so the introduction of VACCP (Vulnerability Assessment Critical Control Point) plans remains a crucial tool. Moreover, progress in the digitisation of supply chains through technologies such as blockchain have become a tool of growing importance.

Sampling and testing might be viewed just as ‘detection tools’, but well implemented plans also serve as wonderful deterrents to those who set out to cheat. It is very clear to many that sampling and testing to detect and deter food fraud is extremely complicated, probably more so than any other form of food-related testing programme. Establishing what samples one should take, at what point in the chain and what method to use are all difficult areas to get right.

The costs involved, the quality of the information gained and the potential for massive disputes around the interpretation of results were all discussed at great lengths last week. The need for harmonisation of sampling and testing protocol, as well as the requirement for databases to be curated to set reliable standards were all noted as vital considerations.  

The rapidly rising number of academic publications around food fraud testing does not seem to be matched with the translation of this important work to standardised testing protocols that can be relied upon.

Portable testing

Where testing actually occurs was also a topic of great discussion. The amount of interest in low cost, handheld, portable testing techniques that can be applied across supply chains in real time was very apparent. This is something myself and my own research group have a very large focus on, as we see a number of really promising ways to deliver on this.

What must be remembered is that these testing methods should be viewed as ‘screening tests’ in that they will provide information with a relative degree of certainty that foods are authentic or not. The results cannot be viewed as providing unequivocal evidence of authenticity or fraud however, and must be followed up by a combination of more complex laboratory testing and/or auditing.

Conclusion

To finish on a very positive note; the Food Integrity conference brought together more thought-leaders and stakeholders than ever before. Almost 2,000 people from over 85 countries joined to discuss critical issues about the integrity of our food system and this has helped shape the roadmap for the next 12 months.

It’ll be great to come together again next year – whether that’s virtually or in person – to see how far down this road we have travelled.

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