What is next on the agenda for food fraud pre-, during and post-COVID-19?

In the last few years we’ve seen authorities clamping down on local businesses selling non-perishable goods beyond their best-before date, as well as counterfeit products. With COVID-19 currently presenting as an occupational biohazard for the food industry, will food fraud pose a greater danger to vulnerabilities in the industry in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Because of globalised supply chains with poor enforcement of trade regulations, controlling food fraud is a challenge. Additionally, given the current state of the South African economy and the looming effects of COVID-19, we expect to see customers demanding more for their money. Coupled with supply-chain disruptions during COVID-19, these are ingredients for fraudulent activity.

For South Africa, even though there are robust penalties in place for fraudsters who contravene the Counterfeit Goods Act of 1997 and the CPA, these are not the sole solution to combating fraudulent activities.

The real challenge is that we do not have enough data on the extent of food fraud in South Africa. Government must collect data to assess the extent of our fraud problem, and then assess the reasons why these types of goods appear on the market. This could include a commitment from government to training environmental health officers in what constitutes fraud and what tests can be put in place to detect fraud regarding specific ingredients sold in the food industry, especially in the informal sector.

The formal sector must focus on equipping and upskilling food safety teams on preventing food fraud in their organisations, and more broadly in South Africa. Those that elect to participate in a certification scheme such as FSSC 22000 or BRC, in which Vulnerability Assessment Critical Control Point or VACCP is focused on the prevention of fraud, are more prepared to combat food fraud in their specific organisations.

It is difficult to forecast food fraud trends in South Africa, due to the lack of both retrospective and current data. However, lessons can be learned from other countries, and – through a horizon-scanning exercise – from looking at general global trends such as climate change, potential biohazards (foodborne and/or occupational biohazards), and political and economic influences.

Horizon scanning is a tool that can be used to identify vulnerabilities. Effective horizon scanning can identify emerging risks across scientific, economic and investigative sources; and, by examining potential vulnerabilities in the supply chain, it can identify which commodities are at higher risk for food fraud. Horizon scanning may reveal unexpected issues, but it is not a silver bullet for resolving all fraudulent uncertainties. However, it can provide information for making informed food-fraud management decisions and effective risk prioritisation.

As an example, when there are extreme and unexpected weather conditions in a country that produces a spice such as turmeric powder, cheap and freely available substances such as corn starch are substituted to make up for the low yield of actual turmeric, and sold at an increased price.

Another example is when there is increased demand for a commodity, but not enough supply, leading to suppliers substituting undisclosed substances for conventional ingredients in food products.

When a product is in short supply, emergency supplier approvals are used to procure more product. However, when countries such as our own are in lockdown, it is impossible to visit production sites and vet the legitimacy of the suppliers through on-site audits. This opens businesses up to fraud.

Food safety teams must know their supply chain well, by employing robust supplier approval and audit programmes to ensure that their suppliers are vetted, and have less opportunity for fraudulent activity. In the unfortunate event that a food incident does occur, traceability systems must be in place so that the source can be found.

There are measures one can put in place to circumvent challenges to the supply chain, such as:
• Reconsidering testing schedules to include extra tests for checking the most vulnerable ingredients for fraud;
• If emergency suppliers are used, they should have food safety systems in place with GFSI-based certification;
• If GFSI-certified suppliers are not available, as far as possible use reputable suppliers with robust traceability systems

FACTS is known for their expertise in food fraud mitigation strategies assisting clients with incident scanning as well as training on VACCP. FACTS is the South African representatives for Decernis and Foodchain ID, that have a team of analysts dedicated to finding, standardizing, and entering relevant food fraud-related information and incidents into their Foodfraud database. This database is continuously updated and is GFSI compliant.

For more information about the Decernis services please contact [email protected]

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