Update: European Parliament Activity – Food Fraud Defined

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative

EUThe European Commission final report on Food Fraud was adopted back in January 2014.  A 58-0 committee vote supported the broad definition of Food Fraud and an emphasis on prevention.  The member states are beginning to implement countermeasures.

EU Food Fraud Report

(http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2013-0434&language=EN )

(The European Union [EU] (http://europa.eu/about-eu/index_en.htm) is a partnership of 28 member states across Europe.  The European Parliament [EP] is comprised of the elected members from those states and provides direction for the EU.  The European Commission [EC] is the executive and administrative body that implements the programs.)

The report “On the food crisis, fraud in the food chain and the control thereof” provides excellent insight as to how the EU arrived at their position and established their next steps.  I will review some of the key sections and quotes below.

Since Food Fraud was not previously defined in laws, there was, logically, not much previous focus.

  • “whereas no statistics exist on the incidence of food fraud in the EU, and whereas the Commission has only recently identified food fraud as a new area of action;”

Later the report stated the need to gather data specifically on Food Fraud.  This will help in understanding the extent of the problem and also support the ability to identify incidents:

  • “Underlines the need to gain further insight into the scale, incidence and elements of cases of food fraud in the EU; calls on the Commission and the Member States to collect data systematically on fraud cases and to exchange best practices for identifying and combating food fraud;”
  • “Notes that EU law does not currently provide a definition of food fraud and that Member States adopt different methodologies in the definition thereof; considers a uniform definition to be essential for the development of a European approach to combating food fraud; stresses the need to adopt swiftly a harmonised definition at EU level, based on discussions with Member States, relevant stakeholders and experts, including elements such as non-compliance with food law and/or misleading the consumer (including the omission of product information), intent and potential financial gain and/or competitive advantage; “

There was a proactive emphasis on prevention:

  • “Considers that official controls should focus not only on food safety issues, but also on preventing fraud and the risk of consumers being misled;”
    The report specifically mentions collaboration with global activities, such as with our MSU Food Fraud Initiative. We have made a lot of effort aligned with MSU’s Extension and Outreach Mission and it is rewarding to see that we are adding value:
  • “Considers it valuable that, in addition to and not replacing the system of official controls for the food sector, the sector itself proactively develops and uses private-sector anti-fraud initiatives such as product integrity checks, self-monitoring, analysis, product-tracing plans, audits and certification, and welcomes current initiatives such as the Global Food Safety Initiative and the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University;”

As in the draft, they adopted the broad definition we presented in our Journal of Food Science article. Early in our research we identified the value of establishing a theoretically sound definition.  The potential to contribute to reports like this were exactly why we took the time and effort to publish that scholarly article:

  • “According to Spink and Moyer [2011] ‘Food fraud is a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain’. Drawing on from this definition the key characteristics of food fraud are: 1) non-compliance with food law and/or misleading the consumer, 2) which is done intentionally and 3) for reasons of financial gain.”

They establish the critical first step in coordinating activities… harmonizing the terminology and establishing common prevention-focused goals:

  • “Firstly it is necessary to define what constitutes food fraud: a clear and harmonised definition is essential as a basis for an effective national and EU approach.”

The additional “Opinion of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection” included:

  • “Considers that the reference to fraudulent practices in the General Food Law is inadequate and that it leaves out frauds that do not pose a food safety or a public health risk; calls on the Commission to provide a definition of fraud which includes the financial gain and the intention of fraudulent practices;”

The additional “Opinion of the Committee on the Agriculture and Rural Development” included:

  • “Points out that a clear, legally valid EU-wide definition of food fraud is essential in order to facilitate the effective combating of fraud in the food chain;”

So the EU and Member States have established a common foundation for combating Food Fraud – a definition and stated focus on prevention. Now other activities such as the UK Elliott Review of Food Fraud/Food Crime will help define how the Member States will be implementing countermeasures.  As the EC reported noted, organizations such as GFSI will also be a key to the Food Fraud Network.

Horsemeat – One Year Review

In February 2014 the EC released the summary of their activities to combat specifically the horsemeat scandal but more broadly Food Fraud. They delivered a five-point plan that is on target and almost all of the deliverables are completed.  Specifically for Food Fraud:

  • “1. Food fraud
    • To map existing tools and mechanisms to fight food fraud, with a view of developing synergies and contacts amongst competent authorities. = DONE
    • To promote the involvement of Europol in food fraud investigations where and as appropriate. = DONE
    • To ensure a procedure for the rapid exchange of information and alerts in cases of violations which may constitute a fraud (similar to what the RASFF [EU wide Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed] does for serious risks). = ONGOING”

Since they’ve defined Food Fraud as a “thing” they’re now able to focus and coordinate their countermeasures.  Also, now that Food Fraud is defined, they are including it as a “thing” in databases.  More clearly recording incidents will improve their ability to estimate the impact and improve rapid response. This is being managed by an “EU Food Fraud Network” which are national contact points – this is the start of an international task-force type network.

EU Grants

Now that Food Fraud is defined, the term is showing up in more reports such as EU grant solicitations.  For example, a recent 500k Euro ($680k) grant on “Sustainable Food Security” includes a specific topic of “Authentication of Food Products.”  Not only is Food Fraud mentioned, there is also a focus on prevention: “Beyond improving fraud detection, activities should aim at better anticipating and preventing frauds.”
Many countries in the EU have had a long focus on Food Integrity.  The vulnerability of the food supply chain was first realized after the BSE scare in the UK in 2009. The horsemeat scandal further exposed the vulnerability and led to consumer outrage. The horsemeat scandal – and the increased awareness that led to more fraud incidents being publicized — brought Food Fraud to the forefront.  The EU and Member States have taken a very proactive approach to establishing a common starting point and coordinating activities.  There will always be resources challenges for every government activity but the firm foundation and focus on prevention is the start of a very efficient and effective system.  JWS.

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John Spink
Dr. Spink has been focused on product fraud since the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Program and the School of Packaging began research on the topic in 2006. This work expanded to the behavioral sciences and criminology and led to the establishment of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Initiative in 2008. In 2009 the work shifted to the School of Criminal Justice where the Initiative evolved into a Program.