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Food fraud – a greater public health risk than traditional safety threats?

By Rory Harrington , 30-Jan-2012
Last updated on 30-Jan-2012 at 12:22 GMT

Criminality, the global supply chain and the unpredictable nature of food adulteration for financial gain mean it can pose a greater public health risk than traditional safety threats such as pathogen contamination, according to new research.

The study – Defining the public health threat of Food Fraud, by John Spink and Douglas C Moyer - notes that current intervention systems are not designed to look for the “near infinite number of potential contaminants” that are at food adulterant crooks’ disposal. They add there is a lack of understanding about the associated public health food risk.

“Economically-motivated adulteration may be just that – economically motivated – but the food related public health risks are often more risky than traditional food safety threats because the contaminants are unconventional,” said the researchers.

The paper, published in the Journal of Food Science, defines food fraud as an intentional act for economic gain while a food safety incident is an unintentional act with unintentional harm.

The study seeks to provide a base reference document on the issue by outlining a food risk matrix and identifying food fraud types.

Global supply chain

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines economically motivated adulteration (EMA) as “..the fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production”.

The scientists said that this food fraud risk has been heightened and its impact extended by the globalization of the supply chain.

“While the scope of food fraud may have remained the same over time, modern food supply chains and manufacturing infrastructures have vastly extended its scale and potential impact,” they added.

Traditional food safety intervention focuses on a set list of known harmful chemicals known as ‘bad bugs’. But the research points out fraudsters can use adulterants not on this register.

It cites that prior to the Chinese melamine scandal in 2008, where hundreds of thousands were sickened and six died after powdered milk was adulterated with the chemical, the substance was not even on the radar of the authorities.

Prevention versus intervention

Evolving risks and a lack of a definition – until recently – have held back progress in combating food fraud, said the authors

It identifies three main types food fraud risks; direct risk , where an imminent danger exists; indirect risk, where the hazard comes from longer term exposure; and technical risk - non-material issues such as documentation which deliberately misrepresents content or country of origin information.

Efforts to tackle food adulteration currently centre on intervention measures that swing into action after the problem has been discovered. This has to change and move towards a preventative approach which involves a deepening understanding of how it differs from other food concerns, said the research.

To do this a food matrix has been developed – which seeks to assess the cause of the risk and the fraudsters’ motivation in four disciplines; food quality, food fraud, food safety and food defence (i.e.: against terrorism).

Criminology

Because the issue involves criminal intent, the authors stress the need to employ theories in the criminology field. Using traditional theories can focus on cutting this type of crime by understanding the motivation behind the behavior, while environmental analysis seeks to tackle it by reducing physical attributes such as time and space available to the perpetrators.

Unlike traditional food safety incidents, which can be predicted by using statistical techniques, food fraud and adulteration is by its nature more random and opportunistic – making it harder to plan against. The criminality and intelligence of fraudsters also makes detection more difficult.

First steps

Using the US as its template, the research points out that while laws and their enforcement are key, the overlapping jurisdictions of various federal and state bodies makes this more complicated, fragmented and challenging.

By outlining the problems and understanding the nature of the risks are “the first steps in transitioning through the natural evolution of intervention and response to prevention”, said the authors.