Interview with John Points | Fighting Food Fraud in 2017
New Food speaks to John Points, Consultant Analytical Scientist, for an insight into how to tackle food fraud in the 21st Century.
As we look ahead to Food Fraud 2017 to be held at Manchester’s Renaissance Manchester City Centre Hotel on May 3, New Food Magazine brings you an exclusive interview series with some of the industry leaders speaking exclusively at the event.
In the latest instalment, we spoke to John Points, Consultant Analytical Scientist.
1.Just how big an issue is food fraud at present in our industry?
By very nature it is difficult to say, but there is no reason that the food industry should be less susceptible to fraud than other industries. It is a fair assumption that fraud is significant. As well as examples of widescale fraud that have been uncovered, such as by Interpol’s Operation Opson, there are also macro-economic indicators of fraud; things such as total global imports of Manuka honey exceeding New Zealand’s export, or ground pepper being available at a cheaper price than peppercorns.
In a recent report, I estimated fraud to account for between 5% and 20% of globally reported food incidents, depending on whether you took a cynical or a charitable view of documentation and labelling errors.
It is important to remember that “fraud” goes wider than food adulteration. Most reported incidents are the type of paperwork fraud that could happen in any industry; things like forged Inspection Certificates, transportation records, and falsified expiry dates.
2. What sort of solutions might we need to consider?
Solutions need to be wider than just Due Diligence testing. It is important for food manufacturers and retailers to conduct regular forward-looking risk reviews that are focussed on their own supply chains. These should draw in cross-curricula expertise from throughout the company and its suppliers, including buyers, technical managers, laboratory analysts, agronomists and legal advisers. This type of review has traditionally been purely a technical/quality function, but the involvement of commercial/buyers is the key to combating fraud.
It is important to also have a routine process for acting upon analytical results. Unlike chemical contaminants testing, a laboratory fraud-test result is unlikely to be a clear cut “Positive”. More likely is an “Atypical” result against a database of authenticated samples, for which there could either be a fraudulent or an innocent explanation. The food industry could take a lead from the pharmaceutical industry, where a documented procedure for dealing with “Atypical” test results is a cornerstone of GMP certification. There is a systematic process for investigating, hypothesising, and hypothesis testing. What is not permitted is re-sampling, over-ruling the original test result with the new result. Such “testing into compliance” would lead to a pharmaceutical site losing its manufacturing licence.
3. Why is the relationship between science and food so key to driving forward progress?
The food industry needs to keep up to date with available anti-fraud testing methods and technology. Equally, laboratories need to understand how the food industry operates, particularly in terms of supply chains and vulnerabilities, in order to develop appropriate tests. The potential vulnerability should drive the laboratory research and development, rather than laboratories first developing a test and then searching for applications. Without a close relationship with the food industry, laboratories risk underpinning their test development with an assumed “authenticated” database that does not represent the breadth of authentic samples in the real world.
As well as close collaboration between laboratories and the food industry being essential to test for the “unknown unknowns”, a continually evolving testing strategy also provides a deterrent effect to would-be fraudsters. And, from a purely practical view, the food industry is a financially low-margin business. It is only by close collaboration with laboratories that we can ensure that the tests we commission are appropriate for our own circumstances, and add value-for-money to our fraud defence.
4. Could you give us an insight into the sort of measures you are undertaking to address food fraud at present?
Much of my current work is in advising food companies on formalising their fraud risk reviews, and the design of analytical test plans that fit within a holistic approach to supply chain verification. This includes looking at trends in commodity prices and supply shortages, and marrying this with emerging trends in published laboratory results. Drawing trends from analytical results, recalls and alerts requires great caution, as generally only the “positive” results are published; there is no context of the number of “negatives”.
Many laboratory tests for species, variety or origin of food rely upon statistical comparison with a database of known samples. Such databases are extremely expensive to construct and maintain, and naturally lead to the emergence of centres of expertise for particular food types or testing techniques. In order to support industry, it is vital (within the constraints of commercial IP and competition) that these centres of expertise co-ordinate their activities, share information, and operate as a network. I work to facilitate this, and would recommend initiatives such as Defra’s Virtual Network.
5. Imagine we are having this conversation in a year’s time in the run up to Food Fraud 2018… What do you predict will have changed?
The optimistic answer is that awareness and fraud protection processes will have strengthened, and criminals will have switched their attention to another industry that is perceived as a softer touch. Unfortunately, I think that the food industry will continue to be a tempting target. Potential gains are large and penalties are relatively low. If Brexit leads to any new system of tariffs then this will give a whole new lucrative opportunity for frauds involving food origin claims and transportation records.
A safe bet would be that another food scandal will break during the next 12 months. The trick is to predict what. Recent widespread issues, such as varietal mislabelling of processing potatoes or the dilution of dried herbs, have not had the same public resonance as horsemeat. It is when an incident triggers this public resonance that there will be a widespread reactive response from the industry, and this is both unpredictable and not necessarily proportionate to either economic or consumer risk.
One mitigation is the increasing availability of screening test methods for “unknown unknowns”, and more of these are likely to become available over the next year as long term EU-funded research and technology-transfer projects such Food Integrity and Authent-net come to maturity.
On the proactive side, I think that it is likely that there will be a wider adoption of anti-counterfeiting measures by the owners of premium brands. Typically, these may involve adding a chemical or physical marker to either the packaging or the product.
6. Why are events such as Food Fraud 2017 so important?
There are many conferences on food authenticity testing, but they have traditionally tended to be the preserve of laboratory scientists, regulators and academics. In contrast, events such as Food Fraud 2017 bring together a large number of technical and quality professionals from the food industry with the scientists who aspire to fulfil their needs.