The European fight against food frauds

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“Nutrition is the principle of life”, and to defend it the Conference on Food Fraud has been opened in Rome on 23rd October. Conceived as a platform to discuss how to strengthen the communication and collaboration among all actors involved in the fight against food frauds and fraud-related crime, the conference has gathered together top experts from food law enforcement authorities, police, customers, judicial authorities, industry stakeholders and researchers.

The different types of food frauds include adulteration, counterfeiting, substitution (e.g. a selected fish substitutes with a lower quality one, sold at the same price) and deliberate mislabelling of goods. The adulteration of food could also pose potential health risks, but it is not only about that: it is always an intentional action carried out for financial gain. High-grade frauds are those made with food of low quality and low cost for the producer, but without appreciable and immediate effects on health.   
According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, food chain in Europe is worth some €750 billion a year. The agro-food industry is the EU’s second biggest industrial sector, employing 48 million workers in 17 million companies. Thus, food fraud “endangers the credibility of European culture”, as the Italian health Minister said. In fact, losing consumers’ faith has the direct consequence of sale decrease with a big economic damage, comprising the lack of taxes payments. For these reasons, in a context of arbitration, the financial crime must also be considered and punished.
Moreover, food frauds could represent a big damage for Europe also because there are police forces dedicated to weapons, drugs or women traffics, but there are less controls for food, making the fraud an easy way to gain money with low probability of punishment.

The world food fraud monitoring

In the European context, the phenomenon of food fraud has intensified in the last years: in 1980, 20,000 European citizens have been intoxicated by adulterated olive oil and, starting from 2000, authorities have registered about one big fraud per year.

In 2001 the cow meat, in 2007 the melamine in pet's food, and during the following year 300,000 Chinese children got sick because of the same stuff in milk leading to kidney failure. Finally, in 2013 there has been the horse meat scandal, when many consumers have paid a high price for a cheaper substitute of beef meat.
The US Pharmacopoeia Convention (USP), which set up a global database of independently documented examples of food fraud, added almost 800 new records, based on information published in scholarly journals and the media in 2011 and 2012. Milk, vegetable oils and spices have consistently appeared in the list of ingredients most prone to fraud.

Carmen Bureau, Head of Unit of European Commission DG Health and Consumers, said: “it’s necessary to create a legislation able to pass national boundaries and to embrace all food fraud related crimes, associated to a strong cooperation between independent authorities working against food fraud”.

The Europe actions against food fraud

In order to gain the consumers faith, it is necessary to strengthen an accurate information about origin and contents of foods. For this reason, on 13th December 2014, new rules for foods labelling will be applied.
Moreover, in the context of controls for food safety, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) has to be fortified: the public access portal is a way to share information among the 28 European Countries, in order to rapidly recall the adulterated foods from the market, but also to collect data and create reports about the food fraud.
Rules to set up coordinated controls among European countries within well-established terms, and learning programmes for experts and authorities in food fraud fight, have still to be defined. Meanwhile, the Belfast University has organized a free online course to provide advanced knowledge of food safety and food security across different levels of the food supply chain. Also, it is mandatory to standardise the analytical skills: harmonisation and exploitation of research and modern technologies are of primary importance to ensure the integrity of European food. And the Food Integrity project is an international effort to reach these purposes.
Lastly, Glenn Taylor, assistant head of Regulatory Services Hampshire County Council, linked the past with the future: “it's also important to learn from history, because adulterated stuffs are never written on food labelling”. In fact, altered foods frequently have common nature: herbs, spices, drugs and spirits are often involved in frauds. But looking at future, “we can't omit the web commerce and the internet advertising”, added Taylor. Thus, in food frauds it will be more and more important knowing the context and then asking the right questions. 

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