Food fraud is a problem that has sounded global alarm bells in recent years, from tainted meat in China to last year’s horse meat scandal in the U.K. to the revelation that at least 10% of the cheese labeled “Swiss” sold in supermarkets is actually counterfeit. What until a few years ago was a relatively unexplored area of study will be one of the top five critical global issues the European Commission will tackle in 2015.
Defined simply as “intentional deception using food for economic gain,” food fraud has become easier to detect through sophisticated DNA and other tests designed to detect ingredients down to the molecule, but criminology may play just as important a role as science in preventing food fraud.
“The big area we’re focusing on now is not so much on the latest methods to detect fraud, we’re focusing on understanding the fraudster, why he would commit the crime and why he perceives a fraud opportunity,” said John Spink, director of Michigan State University’s Food Fraud Initiative. Spink and his team are on a mission to not only help companies and governments detect food fraud, but more importantly to prevent it before fraudulent products hit shelves and threaten producers’ brands and bottom lines.
That part of the effort begins with traditional crime-fighting methods, getting into the mind of the criminal and getting a few steps ahead, he said. Once that’s done, companies can put practices in place that thwart those opportunities.
The initiative began in 2011, with the publication of a scholarly article on the public health threat posed by food fraud. “About that time, we found out about the melamine in pet food and infant formula. Horse meat was a big one as well. Suddenly, at food safety conferences, we found companies asking open-ended questions like why is this happening? How do we study it? What would be proactive?” he said.
Before that, the industry had been focused on food defense, working to detect and prevent adulterated food products aimed at harming people, and many assumed that food fraud would be covered by that work, Spink said. But there’s a key difference between the two crimes that calls for a different tack when it comes to fighting fraud.
Products adulterated with an eye on causing harm will soon become obvious as people or pets fall ill, he said. On the other hand, fraudsters are on a mission to convince people that their knockoffs are the real thing. They range from low-tech, low-volume opportunists who commit their crimes on a small scale to high-tech, high-volume food counterfeiters, and the countermeasures needed to fight them will differ based on their size and motives, he said.
Makers of authentic Swiss cheeses have created specific strains of bacteria that must be present in the cheese to be authentic, and other food makers often introduce tiny molecules of specific ingredients in the product or the packaging ink as a way to tell the real from the fake.
The ingredient is typically an obscure molecule that won’t show up in tests unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Spink said. “It’s basically hidden in the matrix of the food and it’s very hard to copy unless they have a high level of technology.”
But the technological improvements are double-edged sword. Global governments and food brands are taking the counterfeiting threats more seriously these days because the same kind of technology that can detect frauds can also be used to commit them, Spink said. Throw in globalization and you’ve got the potential for a deadly and costly mess.
“If there’s one error by a fraudster, if he accidentally puts something dangerous in, and if you’re sending the product to 50 countries with 10% as the illness rate, you could have major outbreaks in five countries,” he said.
Prosecuting international crimes can be difficult, another reason groups like the Global Food Safety Initiative and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are collaborating on global prevention efforts.
Prevention doesn’t have to be very costly for companies, Spink said, either in financial or human resources. It’s a matter of doing an assessment to detect areas that might be ripe for fraud and developing countermeasures to keep it from happening, he said. As collaborative efforts continue, the food industry will develop countermeasures that will prove useful across the food chain.
For food companies looking for help right now, the Food Fraud Initiative offers a Massive Open Online Course twice each year, which is free and open to all.
“When the U. S. Congressional Research Service did research on food fraud, they referenced discussions and presentations within the MOOC. The agencies are able to find us, then use the information to help shape their thinking and their direction,” Spink said. “We’re not promoting anything but the science.”