The increasing issue of food adulteration has prompted an international response, with experts from academia, industry, and regulatory bodies working together to address this pressing threat to global food supply chains and markets.
Based in the UK, the Food Authenticity Network is one such organization that aims to curate and share best practice guidance and information on food authenticity testing and food fraud prevention. The Network’s overarching goal is to help raise food standards worldwide.
In a recent interview, Will Soutter spoke to key members of the Food Authenticity Network – Selvarani Elahi MBE, Dr. Mark Woolfe, and Sterling Crew – to find out more about the Network, the approaches used to detect and address food adulteration, and the range of international collaborations being developed to address this issue.
Selvarani Elahi is the Deputy Government Chemist at LGC, and the Executive Director at The Food Authenticity Network, Sterling Crew is the Chair of The Food Authenticity Network and Dr. Mark Woolfe is the Secretary of The Food Authenticity Network. Now retired, Woolfe used to work for the Food Standards Agency as the Program Manager for the Food Authenticity Program.
How do you define food fraud and why is this such an important issue?
Although there is a lot of interest in food fraud around the world, currently, there is still no legal definition of ‘food fraud’. It is widely accepted that food fraud involves intentional adulteration, deliberate mislabeling, or misdescription of food for financial gain.
In the UK, we use the related definition of ‘food crime’. Food crime is a form of food fraud, and the UK National Food Crime Unit has defined this as serious fraud that impacts the safety or authenticity of food, drink, or animal feed. This can also seriously harm consumers, food businesses, and the whole industry.
The 2013 horse meat scandal highlighted the issue of food fraud around the world. A lot of global groups are working on definitions for food fraud because this can actually be a barrier to international trade; particularly where food does not meet the standards of both the importing and exporting country.
There are at present two main international groups; CEN – a European standardization group a committee on food authenticity, with a working group (ONE) which is looking to set definitions – and Codex – a worldwide governmental organization with an imports and exports committee that has just tabled a work item on food fraud.
DEFRA in the UK has also commissioned the Food Authenticity Network to look at global definitions. We have just completed that work and fed our findings into the European project and the global Codex project.
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In the eyes of consumers, issues around food fraud are often linked to food safety and the actual safety of the food that they are consuming. How do you think those legal definitions differ between food safety and food fraud? Is there a link between the two?
Absolutely. Our experience in the food sector as a food regulator, a retailer, or in manufacturing has highlighted the definite link between the two.
Three out of the four largest global food fraud incidents in the last 15 years have demonstrated this large food safety link. Food fraudsters are criminals – they are not food scientists, they are trying to make money and some of the things they do to make money inadvertently create food safety issues.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this occurred in 2008, with melanin in infant food in the Far East. People added melanin to infant food to make the milk look more expensive and graze the detection of protein.
They did not realize the health consequences of this, and we had six babies die and 300,000 people potentially develop early kidney problems.
In the horse meat scandal already referred to, the meat was outside of regulatory control and so it was impossible to determine where it came from and whether it was safe to consume.
The most significant food fraud case that has led to public recalls was in Sudan in 2005, where a carcinogenic industrial chemical dye was used to make chili powder look more attractive. Around 470 products had to be taken off the shelf because of this potential food safety issue.
Food fraud can also pose a tangible risk at a local level. A recent case in the UK saw somebody die from anaphylaxis. This person was allergic to peanuts and ordered a dish in a local restaurant that they were assured only contained almonds. The owner had substituted expensive almonds with peanuts to reduce costs, resulting in this customer dying.
There is a very strong link between food safety and food fraud – it is not just about criminality, it is also about safety.
What are the general aims of the Food Authenticity Network?
The Food Authenticity Network was set up as a direct recommendation of the Elliot Review. Professor Elliott from Queen's University in Belfast was commissioned by the UK government in the wake of the horse meat scandal to conduct a comprehensive review of food authenticity practices and present a set of recommendations.
One of these recommendations was around laboratory testing and resilience in the UK, highlighting that those working in this space needed access to laboratories that were using fit-for-purpose methods for food authenticity and that they needed to be coordinated via an appropriate network.
The network was, therefore, set up in July 2015 by DEFRA. Its aim is to signpost to all global practices on food fraud mitigation and food authenticity testing, working towards standardizing methods and approaches to better ensure consistent results regardless of where testing is performed.
Since its launch in 2015, the Network has grown, with over 2,500 members from 81 different countries. In 2020, over 21,500 unique users accessed information on our website from 133 different countries.
Our ultimate goal is to develop an extensive global network that is able to respond to food fraud incidents in an evidence-based rational manner, reducing the impact on consumers and legitimate food businesses, ensuring that consumers have confidence in our global food supply chain.
The network is completely free for people to join – it is open access and anyone in the world can access this information.
Could you tell our readers more about the network’s resources and the materials available on its website?
There are nine main features on the Network’s website. The most viewed tab is the news items, which includes scientific and review papers on innovative authenticity methods, news on fraud incidents around the world, and details on the problems with crops or animals that may affect global food supplies.
The events tab provides details of meetings, webinars, and conferences that are relevant to food authenticity and food fraud.
The training tab provides a series of videos on different DNA techniques and a workshop seminar on allergens and spices. The website is also a good source for methodologies for assessing authenticity, providing a number of research reports and SOPs from established government-led authenticity research programs.
Centers of Expertise (COE) are connected to this – laboratories that undertake food authenticity analysis and have demonstrated that they have the relevant expertise and experience to achieve recognition.
One of the main reasons we set up this website was to help develop this resilient network of laboratories that could respond to any future food fraud incidents.
Members of the website can also post and engage in discussions; for example, if they are conducting a survey or need to request specific authenticity information from other members.
The website also features a products and services section, where members can post details of new methods or equipment developments for feedback.
Information provided by members helps us look at the global supply chain. This enables global horizon scanning, an essential concept because fraudsters do not recognize boundaries and our network is extremely complex and extensive. It is a fantastic way for people to tell each other what is going on – it is an invaluable asset.
The website’s food fraud mitigation section details every relevant system of food fraud mitigation available, and organizations are able to provide information and support on mitigation.
Most food businesses recognize that testing is a core part of their food fraud prevention strategy, but it is also important to work to prevent the fraud from happening in the first instance.
When we first set up the network, it was primarily focused on testing. However, within the first six months, we realized that there was a gap in provision for small businesses that did not have the tools, time, or resources to invest in addressing the underlying causes of food fraud.
Despite this, it was important that they tackle food fraud and food safety as part of a comprehensive food integrity program.
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What impact does this type of information sharing have on the global efforts to address food fraud?
Many companies believe that they should keep their testing methodology secret so that it is not available to people committing food fraud, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that being public about having detection methodologies in place can deter these forces from entering that territory.
Instead, they will tend to operate in a country or area where there is minimal surveillance and limited knowledge around testing.
We have also noticed that these fraudulent forces are becoming more technologically savvy. Food crimes have historically been unsophisticated and crude, whereas now, current levels of adulteration involve a higher level of skill and technical knowledge.
We cannot afford to be complacent. While we have got a very good system in the UK, we must be proactive and work to keep ahead of these forces.
It is almost like an arms race between us and the forces, where each side is continually working to stay one step ahead of the other.
We will never entirely stop food fraud by testing alone, but the innovation and expertise we have collated via the Food Adulteration Network help us stay at the cutting edge of technology rather than behind the fraudsters.
In our experience, we have learned that the lifetime of a method is limited by the fraudsters who were able to avoid it.
For example, people had been committing food fraud by injecting chicken breasts with hydrolyzed proteins to increase their size and water retention. Once we developed DNA methods to detect this, the fraudsters changed their approach, or they only used chicken DNA to obscure this practice.
Food fraud began with the industrial revolution in the 1800s when there was a mass migration of people from the countryside to towns, creating the need for a centralized food supply. Criminals realized that they could con people by adding ingredients to bulk out the food.
There is increasing evidence that organized crime and criminal gangs are moving into the food fraud space because of the sheer size of the global food market. On a volume basis, there is more money to be made in food fraud than there is in narcotics or other activities.
It is also interesting to see forensic accountants looking at food fraud from a different perspective. There is less chance of a criminal being caught committing food fraud than operating with drugs, and the consequences are much less severe.
As the food industry moves from more traditional chemical tests to more advanced techniques, such as NMR which uses a non-targeted screening approach, what impact has this had on the global effort to address food fraud?
We have seen a move towards more advanced non-targeted methods over the last 5 to 10 years. This has been a core motivation in developing a network of laboratories via the Food Authenticity Network.
There are currently 15 Centers of Expertise – a good illustration of how complex food authenticity testing is.
These centers cover all of the food commodities in the world, and almost all of the analytical technologies available to us now. It is unreasonable to assume that one laboratory would have extensive experience in all these techniques and commodities, which is why the network is so important.
Food safety issues – for example, mycotoxins that are known carcinogens – are typically subjected to legislative limits which set legal maximum quantities in food.
These limits are not set in the food authenticity space, however. Our goal is to compare the results of known authentic samples with an unknown set of samples.
This approach creates uncertainty, particularly around the authenticity of the reference database, the way in which the reference samples were collated and curated, and whether these are representative of the samples being investigated.
An analytical chemist would be required to observe a progression and observe the result to determine if a sample is out of spec. We now use mathematical modeling to evaluate datasets – an approach that has become much more sophisticated and requires specific expertise to evaluate.
This complexity poses a challenge for labs and accreditation authorities because to ensure a method is fit for its purpose, users must ensure they evaluate and validate every step of the data analysis, interpretation, and reporting process.
Additional barriers occur as many operators are traditionally trained to work with chemical or biological tests, but modern approaches to adulteration detection span these and other disciplines. These require further expertise and specialist knowledge.
Access to comprehensive non-targeted methods has helped our work towards international standardization, particularly around food authenticity databases.
A European-funded project called the Food Integrity Project was recently run by Ferris Science. This project saw a group of experts make recommendations around food authenticity databases, including approaches to sampling and validation.
The role of instrument manufacturers should not be understated, and there has been tremendous progress in developing equipment in spectroscopy, NMR, mass spectrometry, NIR, and other spectroscopic methods in the last 15 years.
These methods have been central in performing the non-targeted analysis required to build up these databases.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on all industries. How has the pandemic impacted this area of food fraud in the food industry, and how do you think this is going to affect its trajectory into the near future?
It is still too early to know if the conditions created by this pandemic have made it a better space for fraudsters to operate in.
We have seen a lot of disruption as regulators cannot visit facilities and food producers as easily, meaning that the whole supply chain has become more opaque. Regulators and independent auditors have been working to develop new and innovative techniques to address this issue; for example, remote audits or remote testing.
The pandemic’s biggest influence has been on the global supply network.
Many companies have seen traditional suppliers they have worked with for years disappear due to COVID-19; companies with who they had taken years to develop relationships. COVID has forced them to find new suppliers, develop relationships and build up consumer confidence via ongoing analysis.
These factors have made the global food market an ideal place for food fraudsters to operate, but at the moment we have not seen a significant increase in food fraud. This could be due to reduced levels of testing, however, so it is important to be on our guard.
Our advice at the Food Adulteration Network matches the advice from the Food Standards Agency: do not try to do something different in the challenging conditions to fight food fraud; use the robust tools available and ensure these are being used effectively.
The situation was certainly not as bad as it could have been in the UK, primarily due to the UK’s robust infrastructure and the organizations in place to fight food fraud; for example, The National Food Crime Unit and The Food Industry Intelligence Network.
Much of this infrastructure was developed in light of Professor Chris Elliot's Review – the industry saw the value of this and governments got behind it.
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What role do national governments play in avoiding food fraud and ensuring food authenticity?
A government’s most important role lies in implementing a robust legislative framework to prosecute food fraud and maintaining a strong enforcement system to investigate and prosecute if necessary.
The UK government has reacted to this issue by creating the National Food Control Unit in the FSA, and the Scottish Food Crime Unit in Scotland. These are now becoming increasingly active and have been given extra budgets to investigate food fraud.
The UK government was also instrumental in setting up the Food Authenticity Network – a resilient network of laboratories able to face future incidents. Which puts the UK in a much stronger position compared to many other countries.
It is important to maintain links with other organizations and scientists around the world. Selvarani Elahi has built up a very good relationship with U.S. scientists who are both teaching and conducting research in food fraud.
We also have very good links with European institutions through the European projects that we have participated in, as well as with both governments and institutions around the world.
Food fraud is a truly global phenomenon and it is only by working together that we can be more prepared and governments are starting to recognize this.
The Global Alliance on Food Crime was in 2018, with organizations from UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. meeting in different locations and now virtually due to the pandemic.
Our goal is to develop bespoke pages for each of those governments to build a global network on one platform.
Are there any other projects that you have been working on, companies or communities you have been working with, to bring them into this global effort on food authenticity?
When the network was set up, it was very much a government initiative. The government accepted all the recommendations of the Elliot Review and put some good projects and initiatives in place to support that, including the Food Authenticity Network.
The government was clear that the network would need to develop a sustainable model, which involved other parties. The original remit was that the network would operate via government funding for 2 years, and then the hope was that industry would take this on.
We continued with government funding for another 2 years, but at the beginning of 2019, we developed a public/private partnership model – scientific crowdfunding -where we asked for small amounts of money from lots of different people on the basis that everybody should be invested in preventing food fraud.
The UK government still has significant input into the program, and we have funding from BAYS that allows us to operate the network on an open-access basis.
DEFRA, FSA, and FSS are now looking at gaps in the network to potentially supplement the information available, while a number of industry organizations are also supporters of the network and offer small amounts of financial support.
Our next key target is to bring on board other governments to expand the network’s global impact. We are also in discussion around another project in the Asia/Pacific region where we hope to add bespoke pages for 19 other countries.
We have also been working with DEFRA on a Food Fraud Project, where we were commissioned to look at the global drivers of food fraud.
This project was commissioned in preparation for Brexit, and on the basis that the UK is now responsible for the safety and authenticity of all food consumed in the UK; both food made in the UK, and food imported into the UK.
In phase one of that project, there were some global drivers of food fraud; for example, the pandemic, climate change, lack of enforcement, price pressures, food shortages, legislation loopholes, and consumer demand.
The demand for high-value products, such as olive oil or organic produce, actually drives the market and creates opportunities for fraud.
Low penalties for food crime and food fraud in the UK were also identified as drivers. Although food law is criminal law in the UK, the penalties when people are caught are not a sufficient deterrent.
There have been new sentencing guidelines and higher fines since the horse meat scandal because this is a recognized problem, particularly in allergen cases where inadvertent mislabeling or negligence can result in deaths.
A lot of work being has been done over the last 5 years on company culture and approaches to embedding a culture of excellence in the company with everyone working to the same standards, taking pride in the work they do and in the products they produce. This is key to creating a food safety and authenticity culture.
As part of this project, we are currently looking at the options available to mitigate food fraud.
How did you get involved in food fraud and what motivated this? What message would you give to anyone who is interested in this area and is looking to do more?
I [Crew] became interested in food fraud around 14 years ago. There was something called Operation Meat Hook in Hammersmith to address a food fraud using unfit meat.
Even in my early 20s in my own locality, I became aware we had been eating a lot of meat that we shouldn't have been eating. That food safety element has drawn me to food fraud throughout my professional career.
I [Woolfe] have been involved with food fraud for over 30 years since I helped to set up the Food Authenticity Program in Merthyr which then moved to the Food Standards Agency.
I was involved with legislation, making sure that there was a good framework, developing research methods, applying these in surveys, and investigating the issues in the UK market.
We had the confidence of the industry at the time, so we were getting a lot of intelligence. This is an important aspect of food fraud, as the industry is aware of problems in the food chain and where food is being sold too cheaply to be authentic.
Could you talk a bit about the changes you would anticipate in the food adulteration space over the next 5 years? What might the sector look like?
We anticipate that the global food authentication community will shift from being very parochial, worried about issues in individual areas and countries, to recognizing that we are all in this together and that this is a global problem. This will be driven by governments cooperating commercially, as well as via networks like our own. Global retailers are also beginning to recognize this.
The other hope for the future lies in new smart technologies. We have already seen how this is having a huge impact on our ability to interpret the millions of points of data involved in food authentication.
People are using artificial intelligence more to evaluate this data and get valuable results.
Following the horse meat scandal and the implementation of the Elliot Review recommendations, the UK is in a good place.
The Food Industry Intelligence Network already has 48 members – competitors working in the same space who have come together to share data anonymously for the greater good, because they see the value in sharing this data.
This sharing of information has enabled much more in-depth trend analysis and to better predict future issues which then informs analytical testing strategies. This is a big step forward, and there's nothing quite like FIIN anywhere else in the world.
Initiatives like the Food Authenticity Network have become hubs for information and experience, which has further enhanced collaborative working across the sector.
Blockchain shows great promise in helping solve our food supply chain issues, particularly around traceability.
There are pilots ongoing. For example, for single commodities like bananas, it is possible to trace their journey from a farm to a retail shelf relatively easily. This may be more challenging for a more complex product like a lasagna, which might have 30 ingredients from different countries and regions, however.
There are lots of different people working in the blockchain environment and the systems do not necessarily talk to one another. Ideally, we would be able to use a common platform that all suppliers in the world can integrate their systems into. Once we get to that level, it will be much easier to see where products come from.
From an analytical testing point of view, there are exciting handheld devices and screening devices available that will help us with triage information, allowing basic on-site or at-line testing which should streamline this process significantly.
We are also apprehensive about the government budget situation because we rely on this budget to develop new methods and the government is having problems funding these areas.
We think that will be compensated to some extent by these more global networks, however, where we can work cooperatively. We are hoping to build the networks and contacts that we have around the world, allowing us to progress our work in a much more global way.
To make this project a success and to help improve food authenticity across the industry, we would encourage your readers to join the Food Authenticity Network. It is a free, open access, global network; and an ideal place to network and horizon scan as part of a community that is fighting food fraud.
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