In this Crime Bytes, Clare explores food fraud: why is it a problem and what can we do about it?

An aspect of fraud that has received relatively little coverage and yet appears to be on the rise is food fraud. This includes products that are deliberately diluted, mislabelled or misrepresented, tampered with, or substituted with another product.

Many will remember the horsemeat scandal in 2013, where ‘beef’ burgers were found to contain horsemeat. More recently, millions of eggs and egg-based products were removed from supermarket shelves due to European eggs wrongly receiving a safety standard certification. A key motive for food fraud is to ‘cut corners’ to save money in a time where supermarkets have become highly competitive. The National Food Crime Unit estimates that there are more than 20 organised crime groups involved in some aspect of food and drink fraud in the UK. According to one news article, food fraud costs the UK food and drinks industry roughly £11 billion each year.

The consequences of this type of fraud are many. Receiving sub standard products is undesirable but the use of unlisted ingredients can also raise ethical issues for consumers. Perhaps most significantly food fraud creates food safety issues and corresponding health risks, in some cases this could lead to serious illness or death.

Commentary from Canada suggests that technology can help fight the problem of food fraud, detecting counterfeit products by tracking and monitoring products and their individual ingredients, thus allowing counterfeit goods to be discovered. Alternatively, new technologies such as portable devices that allow consumers to validate the contents of food labels could reduce the problem by empowering consumers to avoid fraudulent products.

In the meantime, consumers need to remain vigilant, look for consistent pricing and quality, and keep up to date with the types of food most commonly affected; we should also encourage collaboration however we can between industry, government, academia and other organisations to raise awareness of the issue and how we can tackle it.

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