By Dr. Zhong Kai (See photo, R), the deputy director of the China Food Information Center, Author of the Guokr.com and the TouTiao, Member of the Committee of the Scientific Communication Department of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association.
In China, autumn is the right season to eat crabs; and one of the most famous delicacies in China is the Yangcheng Lake crab. However, during crab season, crabs can be found on sale everywhere labelled Yangcheng Lake, but not all are authentic. Some are actually the Shower crab, and what happens in the crab industry is not unique. It’s just one example of food fraud, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon that includes behaviours such as fraudulent source-labeling and illegally added ingredients.
【A common problem】
That said, food fraud is not a new problem. From an old Chinese saying – “Sell horse-meat as beef-steak” – we can deduce that food fraud existed even in ancient China. Over recent decades, many major food crises have erupted, such as the 2008 melamine epidemic, one of the most notorious in China. However, food fraud doesn’t only impact developing countries. Europe experiences food fraud problems as well – such as the horsemeat scandal and fipronil pollution of eggs. This occurs despite the fact that the continent is considered to have well educated food manufacturers and well developed enterprise management systems.
Along with the globalization of the food supply chain, food fraud has evolved into a global problem. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s report -<The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2018>, some 20% of the aquatic products within the global retail and catering industries are labelled inaccurately. What’s more, an increasing number of factors that cause uncertainty within global economy development will likewise increase the risks of food fraud.
[Food fraud- a big challenge]
Although food fraud may not always lead to food safety problems, it hurts the interests of consumers, and it can undermine consumer trust of an entire country, negatively impacting economic development domestically, and even tarnishing a nation’s image. There is growing awareness around the world – especially among government officials and industry leaders – for the urgent need to develop measures to prevent and combat food fraud.
Indeed, combating food fraud is a great challenge for all stakeholders. It has already existed for so long and can bring great economic benefits to lawbreakers. As an old saying goes, “Money could even hire the devil.” With such incentive, it’s virtually unavoidable that some people will at least attempt food fraud, if not perpetrate it successfully. Moreover, violators will always seek ways to elude regulators, and traditional food administration systems can fail to adequately supervise all participants.
Some countries have gained significant experience in tackling food fraud, and have benefitted others through mutual learning and communication. However, most of these are individual cases. What’s lacking is a common model to effectively prevent food fraud worldwide. The food supply chain involves a wide range of stakeholders and no single entity cannot solve the problem of food fraud alone. Governments around the world are aware that combating food fraud requires multi-sectoral and multi-level collaboration, as well as co-operation and co-ordination globally. Yet, today there is still no agreement on some foundational topics, such as the definition of food fraud and the scope of the problem. This hinders the creation of a global framework to prevent food fraud.
Within the food industry itself, the level of awareness and the coping capabilities are not equally understood or implemented. In particular, some small and medium sized enterprises lack the awareness and prevention capacity, so are at greater risk of adulteration of their products. For food enterprises, the key to preventing fraud is stricter management across the entire supply chain. Although many enterprises have their own quality management system, their success may be difficult for other companies to replicate. Therefore, fraud prevention requires improvements shared across the entire food industry.
Moreover, as the last link in the food-supply chain, consumers are not only victims of food fraud, – they may even be unwitting enablers. Some consumers may have bought fake products, misled by ill-motivated sellers, and some of them may knowingly do so attracted by the low price and acceptance of lower quality. In order to protect the interest of all, it’s also crucial that consumers continue to be educated.
[Consensus and action]
To address food fraud challenges, international organizations, governments, the food industry, and academics are uniting to take action. For example, the Codex Alimentarius Commission is conducting early stage research required to support the development of a standard for food authenticity and traceability. The United States Pharmacopeial Convention has established the <Food Fraud Mitigation Guidance>. Some leading food companies have also started to undertake vulnerability assessments across their food supply chain.
In China, the State Administration of Market Regulations is undertaking a range of governance projects to help prevent food fraud. And some food fraud case clues have been handed over to the Public Security Department for further investigation. There are also several consumer education activities within communities, schools and villages.
In 2017, the Mars Global Food Safety Center and partners jointly organized two international meetings – in Quebec and Beijing respectively - bringing together more than 100 experts from many countries to discuss food fraud prevention and identify combative measures. Recently, Mars and partners have unveiled a report sharing the outcomes from these conference. As one of its authors, I believe this report offers three core contributions.
Firstly, this report will help encourage multiple stakeholders to reach global and regional agreement on the need to address food fraud and to facilitate the integration and sharing of resources globally and regionally. The food supply chain is a very complicated system; to help prevent fraud across the entire chain, significant investment in resources will be required. That said, even some well established organisations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are said to lack sufficient resources. Therefore, we must improve the integration of resources globally, build information sharing mechanisms, and break down the existing barriers to information sharing between laboratories, regulatory agencies and industry partners across the food supply chain. This will help reduce duplication and increase the efficient use of resources.
This report’s second major contribution is to promote the sharing of knowledge, experiences and best practices amongst the many different stakeholders. Specifically, this will help build a mechanism for nurturing open collaboration. Preventing food fraud requires professional knowledge, expertise and guidance, as well as multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary collaboration, such as the co-operation among the food regulation, public safety and law enforcement sectors, and multi-disciplinary teams with experts from diverse areas of expertize such as food science, criminal psychology, cognitive psychology and consumer behavior. At the same time, food companies can become the main actors on the frontline of food fraud prevention, and industry leaders, in particular, can play a pivotal role. From my perspective, we will be more successful at tackling the food fraud problem if the business world views food safety as a non-competitive issue and I encourage more industry representatives, to openly share their knowledge and resources in a not-for-profit manner like Mars does.
The third contribution of this report is to promote the development and application of a range of technologies that can help to detect and prevent food fraud. Detection technologies will provide effective tools for tackling food fraud, and ideally these should be built into a standard fraud prevention framework. In general, many new technologies are emerging worldwide, however, yet, in the food industry, technological innovation and application has yet to fully capitalize on these. To build a unified database for global collaboration in food fraud prevention, we must develop and standardize these technologies. Certain institutions such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the International Organization for Standardization, and the Association of Official Analytical Chemists International are likely to play a vital role in driving standardization.
Overall, food fraud has always been a big challenge for food safety. We must drive deep collaboration between all stakeholders, more open sharing of knowledge and practice, and partnership that facilitates development of solutions together. Those discussion fora focusing on prevention of food fraud will elevate the global consensus around the need to address food fraud to a higher level. The conference outcome report aims to provide guidance on global action required to help prevent food fraud. As a next step Codex Alimentarius Commission will develop the world blueprint for food fraud prevention based on the outcomes of these conferences. As Dr. Chen Junshi, leading academic of the Chinese Academy of Engineering said: ‘this report will help the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, as well as having a broader application globally. In the near future, I believe there will be a unique, global ‘gold standard’ food fraud prevention.’