The right tools

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to be felt across the world, and the UK food industry is no exception. Throw Brexit into the mix, and you’ve got an even more serious threat on your hands. As such, the UK food industry must maintain its investments in proven systems of quality control and product testing in order to guard itself against these threats.

Business must take proactive measures to address the growing influx of fake, adulterated and fraudulent food products that have been flooding the market, as criminals take advantage of the widespread disruptions caused by the worldwide pandemic and the regulatory uncertainty that has followed the UK’s departure from the EU.

Here, Elementar investigates the impact of coronavius and Brexit on the UK food industry, and explains how the food industry can take up arms against this growing problem.

How has Covid-19 impacted the rise in 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 where they source their food, giving fraudsters another leg up.

The impact on the industry’s ongoing fight against food fraud has been undeniably serious, and has been recognized by various industry bodies. Over the last 12 months, organizations including Lloyd’s Register, the Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board and Food Standards Scotland have all raised concerns that the pandemic is greatly increasing the risk of food fraud.

Last summer, Interpol and Europol co-ordinated Operation Opson IX, during which more than $40 million of potentially dangerous fake food and drink shipments were seized, with 19 organized 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 liters of expired drinks.

Of particular concern was the fact that many of the activities uncovered demonstrate that Covid-19 is providing ideal conditions for these criminals to operate. For instance:

  • Seizures of expired food items, or food where the expiry dates had been altered, were significantly higher than during previous operations
  • A shipment of seafood was being smuggled by being falsely declared as personal protective equipment

A study by the Food Authenticity Network (FAN) and Mérieux Nutrisciences established that the conditions created by the pandemic have increased food fraud vulnerability. However, there was insufficient evidence to suggest that there have been dramatic increases in specific Covid-19-related food fraud incidents. It is likely that the true impact of Covid-19 will not be known until the full worldwide resumption of regulatory surveillance.

How Brexit has worsened the food fraud issue
For businesses in the UK, the food fraud threat could now be compounded by the fallout of Brexit. A newspaper investigation in August 2020 revealed that funding for the National Crime Unit has risen from £420,739 since its creation in 2015-16 to more than £5.7 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”.

Despite Brexit coming into effect at the start of the year, concerns have persisted 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. The FSA, FSS and Defra are currently reviewing legislation to ensure it will remain effective in the UK.

With a grace period applying until 30th September 2022 in regard to UK obligations and the enforcement of the new rules due to only begin on 1st October 2022, there is still much left uncertain in relation to how the UK will handle food regulation.

What can the food industry do?
At the moment, the food industry is facing unprecedented challenges thanks to all of the disruptions to business processes and forward planning, so it isn’t surprising 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 solve this problem.

Companies must 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 laboratories are equipped with the technology needed to root out subpar ingredients and keep their customers safe.

Stable isotope analysis is one of the most powerful methods available to the food industry for combating food fraud in all its forms. By analyzing 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.

These methods can be used to identify whether meats and fruit juices are really from their stated place 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 fiber content.

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

The current spate of food fraud and adulteration will be a difficult one to combat, given the exceptional circumstances facing the industry. However, by getting equipped with the right analytical tools and aids, the industry can ensure it is responding swiftly and efficiently to the threat.

Mike Seed is Sales and Product Manager at Elementar UK, the UK division of Elementar, a multinational manufacturer of elemental analyzers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers used for analysis of non-metallic elements. Its applications and machinery are used for ground-breaking studies and research by scientists in the chemical, forensic, agricultural, materials and environmental sectors.
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