Feb. 26, 2019

Food Fraud

A challenge for official controls by food surveillance authorities

  • Credit: Unsplash, freerangestock.comCredit: Unsplash, freerangestock.com
  • Credit: Unsplash, freerangestock.com
  • Fig. 1: A schematic drawing of the European Food Fraud Network (FFN). Based on Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2015/1918 in conjunction with Article 35 of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 on official controls, the BVL has been designated by the European Commission as the national contact point for food fraud
  • Fig. 2: The picture shows an excerpt from the “Honey-counterfeiter workshop” at the exhibition stand of the International Green Week Berlin 2018. The honey was diluted by adding corn syrup. Visitors were able to test whether they could detect the counterfeit at the BVL exhibition floor.
  • Fig. 3: Summary of the German stakeholder and their tasks in the OPSON operation VII. Abbreviations: BY: Bavaria; DE: Germany; EU-MS: European Member States; HH: Hamburg; HE: Hesse; MV: Mecklenburg Western Pomerania; NW: North Rhine-Westphalia; SN: Saxony; TRACES: Trade Control and Expert System

The horsemeat scandal in 2013 has raised public awareness of food fraud, although it is not a new problem. Even though a legally binding definition is still lacking, food fraud generally means, a violation of EU law to pursue an economic or financial gain through consumer deception [1] The economic profit is a key element in categorising an incident as Food Fraud. Due to the enormous profit margin, food fraud exists not only in the food sector, but also in the field of organised crime.

Common Challenges
The challenges in the fight against food fraud can be divided in three phases: Detection of counterfeiting, investigation of fraudulent structures and prosecution of those responsible. It is difficult for food control authorities to detect counterfeit products, if at all, only through elaborate laboratory analysis, indirect inspections at establishments, trade flow analysis or capital flow analysis, which is a major challenge considering globalized trade. Neither industry nor food surveillance authorities and law enforcement authorities can face the challenge on their own. Functioning networks and strategies are needed to take appropriate measures against Food Fraud.

Since 2013, the European Commission and the Member States have consistently worked on setting up official structures such as the Food Fraud Network (FFN) to combat food fraud. In addition to the FFN (Fig. 1), an Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system (AAC system) has been set up to facilitate the rapid cross-border exchange of information. The European Commission has the mandate to recommend coordinated control programs (CCP) to investigate the extent of malpractices or fraudulent practices in a certain sector. To assess the prevalence of honey on the market adulterated with sugars (Fig. 2) or mislabeled regarding the botanical source or geographical origin, a coordinated control program was activated by the European Commission in 2015.

The coordinated control program “Honey” is a good example of how complex the analyses to identify counterfeit are. Samples were analysed by sensory characteristics and pollen profiles and, if in compliance, an isotope analysis was carried out to check for adulteration with sugar.

In the scope of the coordinated control program, suspicious samples were subjected to a more sensitive isotope analysis, so that 127 samples out of 893 samples were found to be adulterated with sugar [1].

Common Solutions
The European Commission keeps a list of the top 10 products most at risk from food fraud, with honey listed in sixth place and olive oil in first [2]. The fraud in the case of honey has in common with the fraud in the case of olive oil that in both cases dilution with inferior or less expensive products or misleading as to the geographical origin or the quality of the product takes place. In order to investigate adulterations analytically in the best possible way Germany has established the National Reference Centre for Food Authenticity (NRZ-Authent) at the Max Rubner-Institut.

The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), which is affiliated to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, is an important national actor in the fight against food fraud, as the BVL is the national contact point for the European networks (FFN and AAC system). The BVL also hosts the National Food Fraud Expert Group, which advises the Federal Government on questions of national strategy. The BVL is working on the establishment of an early warning system for fraud detection together with the LGL (Bayerisches Landesamt für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit) and the LMU (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). The national coordination of OPSON operations also lies in the scope of the BVL.

OPSON is an annual operation coordinated between Europol and Interpol, which was first set up in 2011. During OPSON VII (2018), a coordinated action was carried out to detect fraudulent practices in the tuna industry (Fig. 3). Germany and ten other Member States investigated the treatment of tuna fish with chemicals altering its colour. The colour change implies a fresh impression for the customer that the products do not have. In some cases, health hazards can be present if the fish meat contains high amounts of histamine due to the natural degradation processes in the fish meat. In 15 cases, misleading practices have been detected in Germany. The cases with non-compliance were submitted via the AAC system and lead to further investigations in other Member States [3].

How can consumers protect themselves against food fraud? It can be assumed that it is difficult to identify professional counterfeits. Neither very low nor high prices are reliable indicators to identify possible counterfeits. Knowledge of processing and market-based prices are important to estimate whether the price for the product is realistic. In addition, special attention to abnormalities of the package and the characteristics of the product in terms of taste, smell and texture is a good approach to detecting counterfeits.

There is a lot to be done to track down food fraudsters. The key to success lies in raising awareness and developing functioning networks across professional and regional borders.

Dr Silke Schimanski1, Silvia Raschke1

1Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food  Safety (BVL), Berlin, Germany

Dr. Silke Schimanski
Federal Office of Consumer Protection
and Food Safety (BVL)
Berlin, Germany

[1]    https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/food-fraud_en
[2]    Scientific support to the implementation of a Coordinated Control Plan with a view to establishing the prevalence of fraudulent practices in the marketing of honey N° SANTE/2015/E3/JRC/SI2.706828. E. Aries, J. Burton, L. Carrasco, O. De Rudder, and A. Maquet. JRC Technical Report 2016, JRC104749, 38 p.
[3]    Report on the food crisis, fraud in the food chain and the control thereof (2013/2091/(INI)) Committee in the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Esther de Lange.
[4]   https://www.bvl.bund.de/DE/01_Lebensmittel/03_Verbraucher/16_Food_Fraud/06_OPSON_Operationen/OpsonVII/OPSON_Operationen_node.html

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