Food fraud – How is the industry fighting back?

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Food fraud could be costing the industry up to £12bn every year in the UK, according to NFU Mutual. But what exactly is food fraud? Simply put, it is the act of counterfeiting food products by using lower-quality or cheaper alternatives, but not stating this on the packaging. NFU Mutual defines food fraud as: “The deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering with or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging at some stage of the products distribution cycle.”

Commonly fraudulent foods

Some of the most frequent products to be fraudulent are olive oil, cheese, honey, herbs and spices. According to a report by New Food Magazine, in 2017, the Italian press revealed large-scale olive oil fraud, with seven major producers adding significant amounts of lower-quality oils to their labelled Extra Virgin Olive Oil products. An article by Forbes published in 2016 states that approximately 80% of the Italian olive oil on the market is fraudulent, with even well-known brands duping consumers: “Even the labels bearing the coveted ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ or PDO stamp indicating the precise geographical origin of a particular extra virgin olive oil to ensure the quality of that region’s agricultural products, and which are subjected to more strict controls, have not escaped the illegal trend.”

Parmesan is another targeted product, and may even contain an ingredient not intended for consumption – wood pulp. The misery for Italian food-lovers continues, as a recent study by consumer group, Which?, found that the proportion of ‘added’ ingredients in products marketed as oregano ranged from 30% to 70%. So, how is food fraud affecting the UK food industry?

Fraud and the food industry

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Every year, The National Farmers Union, a personal, business and farming insurance, investment and financial service, produces a food fraud report. The report is designed to support NFU Mutual’s clients working across the ‘field to fork’ supply chain, exploring the effects that high-profile cases of food fraud have on consumer confidence and behaviour.

“Undoubtedly one of the most deep-rooted and significant issues facing the food industry, the impact of food fraud can be of considerable detriment, threatening the reputation of thousands of good and honest UK businesses that rely on others across the global food chain to be lawful and true,” said Frank Woods, a retail specialist at NFU Mutual.

Mr Woods is absolutely correct. Food fraud can knock consumer confidence, and could be costing the UK food industry up to £12bn annually. NFU Mutual conducted research of more than 2,000 consumers, and found that one third of people said they are less trusting of products and retailers than they were five years ago, compared with only 9% whose trust increased. The report also revealed that high-profile cases of food fraud in the media, such as the 2013 horse meat scandal, are the most common cause of reduced confidence in nearly half of consumers at 46%.

The NFU’s report also cites Brexit as being a huge cause for concern within the industry. Leaving the European Union will make the industry vulnerable to a number of ‘practical pitfalls’, when decisions are made on labour, subsidies and new legislation. Brexit minister Dominic Raab recently told MPs on a Brexit committee that, should a ‘no-deal’ Brexit occur, the government would ensure there is an adequate food supply by stockpiling. This, coupled with the prospect of widespread, cheaper genetically-modified (GM) foods and chlorinated chicken from the United States, has rattled consumers.

Another study by NFU Mutual conducted in July 2017 revealed that 99% of consumers would buy more British or local food if retailers made it easier for them. And 67% are influenced by food assurance stamps such as Fairtrade and Red Tractor. However 72% of people in the UK believe there is an issue with food fraud in the UK. So how can the industry fight back against food fraud to win back consumer confidence?

Improving consumer confidence

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Gauge customers’ opinions

Many consumers are very savvy about food fraud, and can even detect it in certain products. However NFU Mutual believes that while they’re certainly in the know, customers have ‘an inflated sense of the scale of the issue’, and that businesses should be encouraged to gauge how their company is perceived and to find out what they can do to boost confidence.

Accurate labelling

Clear and transparent labelling and regular product testing is also essential, as the NFU estimates that 70% of people take measures to ensure their food is legitimate, by frequently reading the ingredients on products. Clearer labelling by businesses will go a long way to enhancing consumer confidence.

Support local suppliers

Businesses using local suppliers are among the most trusted, according to NFU Mutual’s food fraud report. By maintaining a small, local and transparent supply chain, customers can easily trace where their product has come from and in turn be more confident that their food or ingredient is pure. The same goes for restaurants. Farm-to-table or farm-to-fork dining is increasing in popularity, and this is largely down to customers wishing to know exactly where their food has come from, and to guarantee the best quality and freshest ingredients.

Educating consumers

Food producers and businesses have a duty to inform and educate consumers about what they’re putting into their bodies. Through transparency and education, businesses can maintain a trusted relationship with their customers, and help to stamp out food fraud in the UK.

While this topic certainly weighs on my mind, I’m encouraged to see that farm-to-table dining and supporting local food suppliers is a growing trend in the UK. So while we’ll remain vigilant about products like our favourite olive oils and parmesan, it’s important that we keep perspective, and do our bit by supporting British businesses where possible.