Review – FAO’s Overview of Food Fraud in the Fisheries Sector Report

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative, May 28, 2018.

A new 2018 FAO report, “Overview of Food Fraud in the Fisheries Sector,” Cover of UN Food and Agriculture Organization publication: Overview of Food Fraud in the Fisheries Sectorpresents a foundation and direction for the prevention of this type of food fraud. The report acknowledges the public health threat, negative impact on consumer confidence, and the enforcement challenge for governments. Key recommendations begin with a food fraud vulnerability assessment at the product/ country/ industry level to create a foundation for selecting mitigation plans. This assessment will help identify gaps in laws and regulations. Also, this will help focus countermeasures and/or control systems that include authenticity testing, identity standards, traceability, and codifying the requirements such as in Codex Alimentarius.

This new report focuses on food fraud, which is also a focus of several missions by The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), INFOSAN (a WHO/FAO group Food Safety Information Sharing Network), and Codex Alimentarius (CODEX – co-led by FAO and WHO). FAO has a core mission to focus on “international efforts to defeat hunger.” A specific aim of FAO is “Developing Inclusive and Efficient Value Chains” which focuses on “increasing demand for high-value products in international and domestic food markets that is an opportunity for developing countries to generate economic growth and gainful employment.” It was noted that this new FAO Fish Fraud report also supports “The FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (2016).”

The new FAO Fish Fraud report presents several key references:

  • Definition:Food fraud is committed when food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain.”
  • Scope – General: “This involves criminal activity that can include food mislabeling, substitution, counterfeiting, misbranding, dilution, and adulteration.”
  • Scope – Detail: “Some of the most common forms of fish fraud involve:
    • species substitution…;
    • mislabeling of fish to conceal the geographical origin of illegally harvested species [including stolen or smuggled goods];
    • marketing of counterfeit products…;
    • undeclared use of food additives… ;
    • illegal use of food additives…;
    • addition of glaze water to frozen products to increase weight; [and] mislabeling of ingredients… .”

The “Overview of Food Fraud in the Fisheries Sector” report includes the following observations regarding food fraud:

  • A real Public Health threat: While the primary goal is an economic gain, there is often also a public health threat to both the consumer and those producing the food [such as employees being exposed to toxins].
  • A Negative impact on Consumer Confidence: There is potential for loss of consumer confidence both in the local market and also for exported goods. This lack of confidence can even impact the effectiveness of food control aid programs.
  • Increase Product Authenticity and Traceability: To both identify species and also assess the source, expanded application of technology means that “…the possibility exists for far greater transparency in the fish marketing chain.”
  • Harmonize Common Names: There are many practices in the marketing of seafood.
    1. “One of the principal challenges in tackling fish fraud is establishing an agreed list of common names that are linked to scientific nomenclature. This is an essential first step for national governments in introducing official fish fraud control programmes.”
  • Coordinate Government Activity: There is a complex web of food laws or regulations that are often the responsibility of several agencies, which creates an opportunity for better coordination.
    1. “Greater cooperation between food control authorities and law enforcement agencies is required in order to combat the criminal activities involved in fish fraud.”
      1. FFI Comment: This is a frequent conclusion of reviews where the idea is simple but the implementation is very complex. In some instances there are constraints on what information an agency can share with the public or even within government. In other instances, the greater cooperation could lead to one agency taking on or giving up a specific responsibility. With changing responsibilties there are additional approvals for shifting budgets or human resources. Regardless of the challenges of the changing or shifting activities, the most efficient first step is for the government to conduct a country-wide food fraud vulnerability assessment.
    2. “Food regulations need to be strengthened and penalties made proportionate to criminal infringements.”
      1. FFI Comment: There are three points here, with one being strengthened food regulations and then proportionate penalties.
        • First, all types of food fraud are usually already illegal but under a wide range of laws. Often there isn’t a need for new regulations but really an effort to clarify what regulations do apply and then which agencies are accountable for enforcement.
        • Second, there is an ongoing challenge considering the level of penalties and the actual deterrent effect. To start, a challenge is implementing deterrent penalties where the “act” is usually a commercial violation with the lower types of penalties. Thus, while the unintentional result could be a death, the penalties for the commercial act may be considered legally “proportionate.”
        • Third, the consideration of a “deterrent penalty” for an act where criminals think they won’t get caught and where there is a very high potential economic benefit. This has been a challenging question even back to 1994 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. TRIPS includes Section 5: criminal procedures, Article 61, “Remedies available shall include imprisonment and/or monetary fines sufficient to provide a deterrent, consistently with the level of penalties applied for crimes of a corresponding gravity.”
  • Define New Regulations and Expanded Government Activities: Addressing food fraud includes a new or different government response.
    1. “There is a need to strengthen official national food control programmes by:
      1. developing new regulations to combat fish fraud;
      2. enhancing enforcement activities prohibiting landings and market access for products from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; introducing monitoring and surveillance programmes for assessing the degree of compliance with fish labelling regulations; and
      3. upgrading laboratory detection methods based on DNA barcoding.”
  • Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessments that are harmonized, standardized, and codified: There is a need to first assess the vulnerability before selecting countermeasures and/or control systems.
    1. “Food safety management systems need to be expanded to include vulnerability and threat assessments to analyse risks and to put control and prevention strategies in place.”
  • Food Fraud Control Measures (Prevention Strategies) that are harmonized, standardized, and codified: Following the assessment should be a coordinated prevention plan.
    1. “The industry needs to develop and implement systems … to prioritize control measures to minimize the risk of receiving fraudulent or adulterated raw materials or ingredients.”
  • CODEX as an International Harmonization Point: A logical coordinating body is CODEX.
    1. “The Codex Alimentarius Commission, in association with its member countries, should develop international principles and guidelines designed to identify, manage and mitigate fraudulent practices in food trade and to develop guidelines to standardize food safety management systems for fish fraud vulnerability assessment.”

It is interesting and important to consider new research and recommendations that address food fraud prevention. There is a refined focus on basic concepts such as: the general definition and scope of food fraud, that food fraud is a public health threat, and that efficient and effective control plans start with a product/ country/ industry-level vulnerability assessment. This starting point will help refine and optimize the control plans, which include product authenticity testing, identify standards, traceability, coordinated government activity, and focus on consumer confidence. It is logical that CODEX is identified as an international harmonization point which would support other activity by industry or other standards bodies such as ISO. A key is that food fraud research and recommendations are continuing to include a focus on definitions, scope, and prevention. FFI.

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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.