Some are fight­ing food fraud with dif­fer­ent kind of science

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - BY SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS Syl­vain Charlebois is the dean of the fac­ulty of man­age­ment and pro­fes­sor in food dis­tri­bu­tion and pol­icy at Dal­housie Univer­sity.

Food fraud is clearly be­com­ing a no­tice­able is­sue as an­other com­pany has been slapped on the wrist for vi­o­la­tions.

A court has re­cently fined Cre­ation Food, a Wood­bridge­based com­pany, $25,000 for forg­ing a kosher cer­tifi­cate for food that wasn’t kosher, which it de­liv­ered to Jewish sum­mer camps.

It is be­lieved to be the first time in Cana­dian his­tory that the ju­di­cial sys­tem has en­forced kosher la­belling laws. Now we know faith-based food fraud ex­ists in Canada. But this is just the be­gin­ning.

In spite of hun­dreds of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, this is only the sec­ond time this year that a com­pany has been fined in a food fraud case. Last year, Mucci Farms, an­other On­tario-based com­pany, was fined a record $1.5 mil­lion for sell­ing Mex­i­can toma­toes as Cana­dian over a three-year pe­riod.

Food fraud is com­pli­cated, as just a hand­ful of cases ever end up in court, de­spite hun­dreds of re­ported in­ci­dents. But it is just a mat­ter of time be­fore we see more com­pa­nies get­ting fined for con­tra­ven­ing reg­u­la­tions.

The first-known cases date back to the Ro­man Em­pire. In some coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, laws to pro­hibit food fraud have been around for over 80 years.

And it is not just in re­tail, ei­ther. In a re­cent sur­vey, fish sam­ples from more than 150 food ser­vice out­lets re­vealed that in over 30 per cent of cases, the prod­uct served was not the one in­di­cated on the menu.

Food fraud has now become main­stream for a rea­son. Two things have changed in re­cent years that are mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact: sup­ply chain trans­parency, from fork to farm, and con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions em­pow­ered by so­cial me­dia.

In Canada, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study, more than 40 per cent of Cana­di­ans be­lieve to have been vic­tims of food fraud al­ready. With mis­la­belled seafood, adul­ter­ated sauces, oils and vine­gars, sell­ing food la­belled as or­ganic when it is not, the world is see­ing more in­ci­dents.

Un­like Europe or Asia, Canada hasn’t re­ally had its own ma­jor food fraud cri­sis, and it isn’t cer­tain that we ever will. In Europe, a sig­nif­i­cant amount of re­search has gone into de­vel­op­ing new tech­nolo­gies to pro­tect the pub­lic. There is an ar­ray of new tech­nolo­gies now avail­able to com­pa­nies to pro­tect them­selves and their brands from food fraud and coun­ter­feit­ing.

But our reg­u­la­tory frame­work in Canada is un­der­de­vel­oped and untested. Us­ing laws to pro­tect the pub­lic and im­ple­ment the spirit be­hind all of our reg­u­la­tions is dif­fi­cult. Col­lect­ing the ev­i­dence to build a case has been any­thing but straight­for­ward in re­cent years. Whistle­blow­ers are re­luc­tant to come for­ward for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, and con­sumers have not known where to reg­is­ter con­cerns re­lated to cer­tain prod­ucts. It has been dif­fi­cult to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of the prob­lem, let alone to de­tect spe­cific cases. Now, how­ever, Ot­tawa has a bureau that ac­cepts com­plaints. In fact, in 2016, Ot­tawa re­ceived more than 130 com­plaints re­lated to food fraud cases, and the num­ber is likely to in­crease this year. Con­cerns are be­ing ac­com­mo­dated, which is an im­prove­ment, but we still have a long way to go.

The CFIA and the prov­inces now look at food fraud through the eyes of food in­tegrity and pre­ven­tion, not just pro­tec­tion or de­fense. An in­ten­tional act is an in­her­ent part of food fraud, which makes most food fraud cases unique. With food fraud, the in­tri­cate un­der­stand­ing of hu­man be­hav­iour and how com­pa­nies op­er­ate have never been so ob­vi­ous. This rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant paradigm shift.

Food fraud is es­sen­tially invit­ing reg­u­la­tors to re­de­fine what science means to them, which in turn will im­pact how they find the reme­dies needed to solve the prob­lem. The same goes for in­dus­try. In­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als are re­al­iz­ing that turn­ing to food sci­en­tists, qual­ity as­sur­ance pro­fes­sion­als, and mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gists is no longer enough. To de­tect cases, they now draw on cross-cur­ric­u­lar ex­per­tise from through­out the en­ter­prise. Sup­pli­ers, buy­ers, tech­ni­cal man­agers, lab­o­ra­tory an­a­lysts, agron­o­mists and le­gal ad­vis­ers are also get­ting in­volved which is some­thing we haven’t seen be­fore.

Food fraud is about de­cep­tion through food, re­gard­less of where the com­pany op­er­ates within the food con­tin­uum. The guilty ones are fool­ing the pub­lic, but they are also fool­ing the in­dus­try. Reg­u­la­tory com­pli­ance is be­com­ing a ma­jor fo­cus for in­dus­try, since its rep­u­ta­tion is at stake. For a while, it was the ele­phant in the room for in­dus­try, but not any­more. They are mak­ing more of an ef­fort, which is re­as­sur­ing.

We will never find our way to a sys­tem free of food fraud, but ev­ery lit­tle bit helps.

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