02/12/20 – Challenges of our Times / Food Fraud / Brexit / Covid-19 / UK

UK faces double-threat of rising food fraud

The UK’s food sector is predicted to see a rise in food fraud off the back of Brexit and Covid-19, and should be moving to protect itself against such risks now, with quality assessment and analysis technology likely to be key tools in the fight against unsafe and subpar products and ingredients.


Faced with the dual-pronged threat of rising food fraud due to Brexit and Covid-19, Britain’s food industry must maintain its investments in proven systems of quality control and product testing in order to guard against this serious challenge to standards and integrity across the sector. 


Technology firm Elementar UK is calling for businesses along the food supply chain to take proactive measures to address the growing influx of fake, adulterated and fraudulent food products that have been flooding the market over the last six months, as criminals take advantage of the widespread global disruptions caused by the worldwide pandemic.


Europol ops reveal extent of danger


Over the summer, Interpol and Europol co-ordinated Operation Opson IX, during which more than US$40 million of potentially dangerous fake food and drink were seized, with 19 organised crime groups disrupted and 407 individuals arrested. The items seized included cheese that tested positive for E.coli bacteria, meat from illegally slaughtered animals and 6,500 litres of expired drinks.


Of particular concern was the fact that many of the activities uncovered demonstrate that the Covid-19 crisis is providing ideal conditions for these criminals to operate. For instance, seizures of expired food items – or foods where the expiry dates had been altered – were significantly higher than during previous operations. Another example was a seized shipment of seafood that was being smuggled through under the falsified declaration of being ‘personal protective equipment’.


Lockdowns impact quality checks


In recent months, organisations including Lloyd’s Register, the Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board, and Food Standards Scotland have all warned that the current pandemic is greatly increasing the risk of food fraud. 


National lockdowns have disrupted regular business processes, meaning that quality checks may not be taking place across the supply chain as expected; at the same time, budget-conscious consumers may be becoming less discerning about from where they source their food, giving fraudsters another leg up.


Brexit could compound the problem


For businesses in the UK, this threat could now be compounded by the forthcoming impact of Brexit. A newspaper investigation in August 2020 revealed that funding for the National Food Crime Unit has risen from £420,739 (US$552,440) at its creation in 2015-16 to more than £5.7 million (US$7.48 million) in 2020-21, in large part due to a need to prepare against “any risks or opportunities presented by the UK’s exit from the EU”.


Concerns have persisted for months that the UK’s break from established Europe-wide systems of food standards regulation and quality control could create uncertainties that might be exploited by fraudsters. With no post-Brexit trade deal yet established between the UK and EU, and the current transitional agreement expiring on 31st December 2020, this ambiguity looks set to persist for some time.


“Unprecedented challenges and an uncertain future”


“At the moment, the food industry is facing unprecedented challenges and an uncertain future,” observed Mike Seed, IRMS sales and product manager for Elementar UK. “With all of the disruptions to business processes and forward planning, it is unsurprising that food suppliers are finding it harder to detect examples of fraud and maintain their quality control standards; however, it is crucial to their future success that they are able to solve this problem.”


With both of these factors conspiring to exacerbate the risk posed by food fraud to the industry, Elementar UK is calling on companies to ensure their approach to quality assessment and analysis of food products remains robust, throughout their supply chain. This can be achieved, at least in part, by making sure that their quality control labs are equipped with the technology needed to root out subpar ingredients and keep their customers safe.


Technology is key to combating food fraud


Stable isotope analysis is one of the most powerful methods available to the food industry for combating food fraud in all its forms, according to Mr Seed. “By analysing the unique chemical signature or fingerprint of each food product, labs can gain important insights into their origins, properties and production methods, making it much easier to identify evidence of fraud and adulteration,” he advised.


“These methods can be used to identify whether meats and fruit juices are really from their stated places of origin, or to find evidence of illegal additives and chemicals in products such as honey and wine. Such techniques can also be used to assess a product’s specific quality, such as protein or fibre content,” he told us.


“With so many modern stable isotope analysers being designed to offer efficient, automated performance, it is vital that food analysis labs make sure they have the right equipment in place to carry out this essential work as smoothly as possible,” Mr Seed urged in closing. “At a time when other parts of the supply chain are facing such disruption, these labs can play a major role in overcoming the current challenges, simply by equipping themselves to deliver timely, accurate results.”

Latest issue – Vol 3/20
– Quality focus
– A hive for higher standards
– Global progress towards the ethical egg 
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