Fight­ing fraud with a dif­fer­ent kind of sci­ence

Reg­u­la­tors, in­dus­try both have a role to play in com­ing to grips with a mas­sive prob­lem

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - DR. SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS

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 faith­based 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 On­tar­i­obased 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.

Food fraud has been around for thou­sands of years. The first known cases date back to the Ro­man Em­pire. So, the no­tion of food fraud is not new. In some coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, laws to pro­hibit food fraud have been around for over 80 years. Col­lec­tively, we have been aware of this prob­lem for quite some time, par­tic­u­larly in in­dus­try. Some es­ti­mates sug­gest food fraud rep­re­sents a $70-bil­lion prob­lem world­wide (Ir­ish Times, 2017). Food fraud is al­legedly worth more than the heroin trade and firearms traf­fick­ing com­bined. 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. Some Cana­di­ans are still in de­nial, but that num­ber is slowly shrink­ing. With mis­la­belled seafood, adul­ter­ated sauces, oils and vine­gars, sell­ing food la­belled as or­ganic when it is not, the world is see­ing more in­ci­dents of food fraud. Around the world, the most fa­mous cases re­main the 2008 scan­dal in China, where some man­u­fac­tur­ers added melamine to baby milk for­mula to trick pro­tein tests. The 2013 Euro­pean meat scan­dal has also be­come a clas­sic. Pro­ces­sors re­placed sev­eral meats, mostly beef and lamb, with horse­meat — and it had been go­ing on for years.

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, since the scan­dal erupted, a sig­nif­i­cant amount of re­search has gone into de­vel­op­ing new tech­nolo­gies to pro­tect the pub­lic. These in­clude mo­bile de­tect­ing de­vices to val­i­date la­bels, sol­vents to pro­tect the in­tegrity of pack­ages against coun­ter­feit­ing, and new blockchain tech­nolo­gies al­low­ing com­pa­nies to pro­tect them­selves from fraud­u­lent sup­pli­ers. There is an ar­ray of new tech­nolo­gies now avail­able to com­pa­nies to pro­tect them­selves and their brands from food fraud and coun­ter­feit­ing. Pre­ven­tive mea­sures are in­creas­ing at a spec­tac­u­lar rate across sup­ply chains. Laws are also be­com­ing more ac­com­mo­dat­ing for reg­u­la­tors, al­low­ing them to act more ef­fec­tively, and Canada too will ben­e­fit from this.

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. It has been dif­fi­cult to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of the prob­lem, let alone to de­tect spe­cific cases. Now, how­ever, Ot­tawa has a bureau which ac­cepts com­plaints. In fact, in 2016, Ot­tawa re­ceived over 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.

A few years ago, food fraud was con­fus­ing for pub­lic reg­u­la­tors. They just did not rec­og­nize where food fraud would fit in their com­pre­hen­sive food safety reg­u­la­tory frame­work. These days, though, things have changed. The CFIA and the prov­inces now look at food fraud through the eyes of food in­tegrity and pre­ven­tion, not just pro­tec­tion or de­fence. An in­ten­tional act is an in­her­ent part of food fraud, which makes most food fraud cases unique. Bad de­ci­sions are made for sev­eral rea­sons. In most cases, in­spec­tors can pinpoint the root cause of out­breaks. In food safety, E. coli and sal­mo­nella are the same any­where around the world. To ad­dress food fraud, a food-cen­tric ap­proach is just not enough. 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.

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.

Dr. Syl­vain Charlebois is dean at the Fac­ulty of Man­age­ment and a pro­fes­sor in Food Dis­tri­bu­tion and Pol­icy at Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity.


A cell­phone is held over a plate of sal­mon with the web­site ThisFish shown on the screen. Seafood mis­la­belling and fraud, which hap­pens around the globe, has con­se­quences for con­sumers’ wal­lets and their health as well as for the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers.

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