The impact of food fraud – a term generally describing the deliberate substitution, addition and misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or packaging – is on the rise.

According to AT Kearney, the counterfeiting of global food and consumer products is costing the industry $10bn to $15bn each year – and the impact is not just economical, food fraud also poses a very real threat to public health.

The growing trend of food fraud

John Spink, associate director of Michigan State University’s A-CAPPP, the first academic body to focus on the complex global issues of anti-counterfeiting and product protection, estimates that 5%-7% of the food supply is fraudulently labelled.

“An overwhelming set of incidents and case studies indicates that food fraud is a growing trend,” says Spink. “Globalisation, consolidation of manufacturing, urbanisation, and other large-scale trends may provide insights to why food fraud is growing – globalisation requires more diverse and longer food supply chains to meet the demands of growing urban populations.”

With counterfeit food on the increase, what are the best ways to counteract such a problem? Spink believes that a multidisciplinary approach is required. “Some of the useful disciplines, beyond food science, include criminology, supply chain management and packaging. Each of these disciplines provides insights for understanding the nature of food fraud and contributes proactive solutions to reduce it.”

“The counterfeiting of global food and consumer products is costing the industry $10bn to $15bn each year.”

When it comes to methods to detect the authenticity of food, there is plenty of technology, but technology alone may not be enough to solve the problem. According to Spink, “there is no shortage of technologies. What is in demand is to further strategise how multilayer, multitechnology approaches deter bad guys.

“There is a danger of relying too much on one technology, such as for anti-counterfeiting, then the bad guys shift to stealing and reselling genuine product.” He does, however, believe that recent handheld, immediate authentication technologies are an ‘important piece of the detection and deterrence equation’.

Handheld device detects fake alcohol

Counterfeit alcohol and spirits are all too commonplace. Last year, the Food Standards Agency was informed that counterfeit wines, labelled as Jacob’s Creek, were being offered for sale in London. In November 2010 seven men were charged after HMRC discovered a counterfeit vodka manufacturing and bottling plant in Leicestershire. “Each year the revenue lost to alcohol fraud on spirits is around £225m,” says Andrew Pavlinic, assistant director of criminal investigation for the UK’s HMRC. “Organised crime has a detrimental and harmful effect on all our communities and we are determined to disrupt and dismantle the illegal supply of alcohol in the UK.”

A team at the University of Leicester has developed technology to spot counterfeit medicine through scrutinising the packaging. Experts at the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre, with De Montfort University, have created a handheld device that can identify fake whisky and wine through the bottle. This technique was originally developed from a spectrometer designed for astronomical research and works by detecting the differences between the characteristics of light reflected from printed packaging.

“Being able to test a liquid such as whisky or wine for authenticity without opening the bottle would bring major benefits to the drinks industry,” says Richard Worrall, director of Food and Drink iNet, the organisation backing the research.

Tracking authentic origins

In 2008 more than 10,000 cases of counterfeit extra virgin olive oil were exposed in the US. Food and Drug Administration safety officer Martin Stutsman told USA Today that it is one of the most frequently counterfeited products.

“An overwhelming set of incidents and case studies indicates that food fraud is a growing trend.”

Trace, a five-year project sponsored by the European Commission, recently carried out a study in chemical profiling that showed that it was possible to test the authenticity of mineral water, wheat, olive oil, honey, chicken, lamb and beef. The aim of the research was to predict various chemical properties based simply on knowledge of the production area of a food product.

Between 500 and 2,100 samples were collected for each commodity and chemical parameters were measured against the local geographical and geological conditions to predict the expected composition of food from its known origins.

The study showed that if the chemical properties measured in the food do not comply with the specified values, the claimed origin of the food is most likely false.

This method could work well for ascertaining the authenticity of olive oil, for example, as certain olive oil origins are more popular than others and therefore more expensive to buy, olive oil is therefore an ideal target for food fraud. It can also help to detect fake olive oil by combining measurement results of oxygen and carbon isotope ratios of olive oils to estimate the origin.

Barcode of Life

The July 2008 Chinese milk scandal saw milk and other products contaminated with melamine in order to produce a higher protein content. Approximately 300,000 victims were reported, which included 900 infants and melamine-contaminated products were still being seized in 2010. DNA techniques are now being used to help expose mislabelled or unauthentic food products, including milk.

A study carried out by DNA coding experts at the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History along with high-school students revealed that 11 of 66 food labels misrepresented the contents – including ‘sturgeon caviar’ that was really Mississippi paddlefish and expensive sheep’s milk cheese that was made from cows’ milk. DNA coding, which has, according to the Barcode of Life website, already recorded almost 100,000 different species could prove to be an effective way of exposing unauthentic produce. The method uses a very short genetic sequence from a section of the genome, much like a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes of a product code. A lab can now produce a DNA sequence in just several hours.

Egg fingerprinting

Melamine contamination hasn’t just affected milk products it has also been found in eggs. Other potential areas for food fraud regarding eggs are related to claims of them being organic when they are not.

“In 2008 more than 10,000 cases of counterfeit extra virgin olive oil were exposed in the US.”

The RIKILT Institute of Food Safety, part of Wageningen university in the Netherlands, has developed a way of ‘fingerprinting’ eggs to ascertain whether or not they are organic. The fingerprints are identified with the help of a separation technique called high-pressure liquid chromatography, or HPLC. “The method has proven itself in the field and is well-suited to detecting fraud or other irregularities,” says the university. The results from investigations into milk, ham, cheese, butter and olive oil have already been released and research is now being carried out to identify other products, such as wild (as opposed to farmed) fish and palm oil.

Collaboration is key

While these various sophisticated areas of technology can identify the origin and contents of products, they must be used in coordination with a transparent and collaborative approach to food fraud if countermeasures and detection techniques are to be successful.

“The real goal of all these systems, processes, and technologies is to increase transparency of the supply chain,” says Spink. “We are striving to reduce the fraud opportunities in the first place, and part of that is being able to more clearly see product as it moves through the supply chain. Partially, this is identifying the gaps where bad product slips in and then it is providing the ability to authenticate product at the end of the line – either by customs or enforcement, or by retailers and consumers.”