By Samantha Cooper
Food fraud has been affecting the food industry for thousands of years. Olive oil, tea, wine, and spices were early victims of fraudsters who attempted to defraud customers for economic gain without getting caught. Many of the tactics used thousands of years ago to achieve fraud, such as substitution, dilution, or misrepresentation, are still used today.
However, an expanding wealth of knowledge and awareness, along with advancements in technology, have provided manufacturers with a better understanding of food fraud and solutions to move toward a goal of food fraud reduction. Following is a brief Q&A and references for additional resources that will help you to increase your knowledge of food fraud.
1. What is food fraud?
As defined by John Spink and Douglas Moyer in Backgrounder: Defining the Public Health Threat of Food Fraud, “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.”
The goal of those committing the fraudulent act is to get away with the crime and earn a financial gain. Unfortunately, many of the food fraud incidents are not detected because the majority of the incidents do not create a food safety hazard, and consumers typically do not notice a quality problem.
2. What is economically motivated adulteration (EMA)?
EMA is a category within the larger definition of food fraud. In an April 2009 public meeting, FDA adopted a working definition for EMA as: the “fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain. EMA includes dilution of products with increased quantities of an already present substance to the extent that such dilution poses a known or possible health risk to consumers, as well as the addition or substitution of substances in order to mask dilution.”
3. Why aren’t more food fraudsters caught?
It’s difficult to catch those responsible for food fraud because their business thrives on avoiding detection. However, the number of documented incidents is increasing and being captured in several databases, such as the United States Pharmacopeia Convention (USP) Food Fraud Database and the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) EMA and Intentional Adulteration Incidents Database.
4. Is EMA addressed in any of FSMA’s final rules?
EMA is addressed in both of the Preventive Controls rules – for human food and for animal food. The regulations require consideration of hazards in ingredients that have a past pattern of economically motivated adulteration, but it is limited to include only those agents that can cause illness or injury. Thus, while EMA incidents only affecting product integrity or quality are of concern to food facilities, these should not be addressed in a facility’s FSMA-required Food Safety Plan.
5. What resources are available for companies to fight food fraud?
In addition to the resources mentioned in the previous four answers, there are a number of tools available for food manufacturers, such as EMAlert, which was launched in April 2015 by GMA and Battelle. EMAlert is a secure, intuitive, web-based software tool that enables food facilities to analyze and understand the company-specific EMA vulnerabilities in their manufacturing process. EMAlert provides a quantitative estimate of an organization’s vulnerability to economically motivated adulteration for each commodity included in the analysis based on a combination of characteristic attributes of each commodity and subject matter expert (SME) opinion as to how important those attributes are in predicting which commodities are most likely to be adulterated for economic reasons.
The SSAFE Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment tool is another resource which can help food businesses of any size or geographic location identify how they may be vulnerable to fraudulent activity. With SSAFE, the company can prepare mitigation plans and determine vulnerability of an ingredient, product, or entire company.
In addition to such online resources, companies can stay ahead of the growing knowledge on food fraud by attending conferences and seminars. One such conference is the GMA Science Forum, April 18-21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., (www.GMAscienceforum.com) which will include a session addressing EMA and how companies can take multiple approaches to tackling food fraud.
SUMMARY. Increases in knowledge and awareness, and advancements in technology, are providing manufacturers with a better understanding of food fraud and solutions to move toward a goal of food fraud reduction. There are many resources companies can use to help build their knowledge and awareness on food fraud, and teams are continuing to develop tools to help companies assess their food fraud vulnerability. The industry may not be able to pinpoint the fraudsters just yet, but with the advancements in technology, traceability, and knowledge, we’re getting closer.
The author is GMA Food Safety and Quality Assurance Manager.