18 Aug 2020

Identifying the risk of food fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic and best practices for protecting food authenticity

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, most of the UK's food industry continues to manufacture and sell safe, quality food products to consumers. However, there is growing concern among enforcement agencies that the current situation is making it easier for unscrupulous firms to pass off fraudulent food as genuine.

Food Standards Scotland recently noted the risk from individuals who are "willing to cut corners and take advantage of the pandemic." As a result, consumers have been urged to be aware of "tell-tale" signs that can help avoid falling victim to food fraud during and after lockdown. These include: the price; unregistered food businesses on social media/online; fake alcohol disguised as well-known legal brands.

The cost of UK food fraud
In normal times, the estimated annual cost of fraud to the UK food industry is around £12bn (NFU Mutual, 2019). With disruption to the usual supply chains and businesses, consumers still in the process of coming out of lockdown and some limitations on routine checks, there is clearly a higher level of risk posed during the current pandemic.

Many commodities are the subject of fraudulent practice but premium products (higher grade olive oils, herbs and spices, specialist meats, tea/coffee, alcohol) are at greatest risk, given the economic drivers of food crime.

What types of food fraud must manufacturers and consumers be aware of?
Food fraud can be conducted in a number of ways. Products can be substituted with an inferior variety, they can be adulterated or bulked out with other, cheaper ingredients, or they can be deliberately mislabelled or misrepresented by claiming qualities, origins or benefits that are false. Additionally, fraud can take the form of deliberate falsification of records (veterinary approval, crop spraying, product durability dates, etc).

How can food fraud be controlled?
As the types of fraud can be very different, the methods of protecting businesses and consumers against it are equally so. For each stage of the food supply process there are specific risks that must be assessed and controlled.

One of the primary controls of fraud risk is to ensure that there is visibility of the supply chain. This requires inspections or audits of supplier sites against approved standards to demonstrate that the level of control and record-keeping at each site is adequate. Suppliers should also be performing due diligence testing to support the effectiveness of the onsite procedures.

Ron McNaughton, head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit, recently warned, "With some disruption to the usual supply chains, and more people staying at home more often due to lockdown, there have been opportunities for unscrupulous traders and individuals to cut corners and sell direct to individuals and retailers. This could include, for example, meat and fish products that have not been properly processed through the supply chain, or cheap fake alcohol. Food crime is not only illegal and deceptive, but potentially harmful to health."

Intertek services protect Food Authenticity, with recognised experts in food legislation who can advise on the level and nature of testing required. They can also liaise with technical colleagues worldwide to ensure that the techniques applied are suitable to the product under test and give results of genuine value. Intertek's global food testing portfolio includes specific analysis related to food authenticity on at-risk products including meat, fruit juice, honey, botanical ingredients and olive oil.

With a presence in over 100 countries, Intertek experts carry out audits and inspections against a number of globally recognised standards including BRCGS, FSSC 22000, Global G.A.P, IFS, SQF, RSPO. To find out how Intertek can support your organisation, contact us now for more information.




Patrick McNamara,
Technical Specialist Manager, Food Services UK


Today's expert blogger is Patrick McNamara. Patrick has been in commercial food laboratories since 1996, working as a food chemist with clients that included some of the UK's largest supermarkets. Patrick was then involved in managing retailer due diligence and graduate training until he joined Intertek in 2016. He now works as Technical Specialist Manager, advising clients on testing programmes to support their end-to-end business security.

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