Over the past few decades there have been many a controversy in the food and beverage industry. These breaches have ranged from tainted dairy products to contaminated beef. These high profile cases of food fraud have dented consumer confidence and made the general public question the journey their food takes from farm to fork.
Food fraud is described as any food that is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer. Examples include mislabelling of food, making false statements about the source of the ingredients and the sale of food, which is unfit and potentially harmful. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, food fraud can legitimately cost food retailers up to USD $15 billion a year.
Over the years, the journey from farm to fork has become more complex and many of today’s food stuffs cross several national boundaries before they reach their final destination. For example, an average cod can travel 10,000 miles before it ends up on a dinner plate. It could be caught in the Bering Sea, prepared and frozen in a factory in China, then taken by cargo ship to Europe or the US for processing and makes one more final journey before ending up as a fish finger on a plate in Moscow. Our food is now more vulnerable to contamination and other hazards than it has ever been previously due to the extended journey it now takes from farm to fork.
Farm to Fork
Some high profile food contamination scandals include the following:
- The BSE Crisis in the 1990s saw approximately 4.4 million cattle slaughtered in the UK. This crisis occurred when cows were fed bone meal infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy otherwise known as mad cow disease. This lead to a fatal neurodegenerative disease in humans who had ingested the infected meat causing 166 people to lose their lives in the UK. The EU banned British beef exports for 10 years from March 2006 and many other countries put an outright ban on the import of British beef.
- In 2008 it was found that infant milk powder in China had been contaminated with melamine. This caused an estimated 300,000 babies to become ill and resulted in 6 fatalities due to kidney damage. Melamine is used to make plastics, fertilisers and concrete. It was later identified that The Sanlu Group were the main culprits for the contamination. This scandal led to an increase in demand for foreign milk products.
- Another food contamination scandal broke in 2008 in Ireland. Harmful polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dioxins found their way into the food chain by way of animal feed fed to pigs. Dioxins such as the PCBs had been banned in the 1970s. As a result of the dioxins being present, 100,000 pigs were culled and an estimated €125 million worth of food products had to be destroyed.
- A controversy that engulfed Europe in 2013 was the horsemeat scandal. This highlighted a major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain, as horsemeat and pork were found in beef meat products in Ireland and the UK. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland tested a range of cheap frozen beef burgers and ready meals from supermarkets and found traces of horse DNA in over one-third of the beef burger samples and pork in 85% of them. The scandal quickly engulfed the rest of Europe when it was found that a French producer was manufacturing and supplying cheap beef ready meals to supermarkets Tesco and Aldi with meat that was 100% horse. In the wake of the 2013 scandal the National Food Crime Unit was established. This unit works with police forces and Europol and with the Food Fraud Network, which links food safety authorities across Europe. On the 26th August 2016, three men in the UK were charged with conspiracy to defraud by arranging for beef and horse meat to be combined for sale as beef. These charges follow a complex three-year international investigation, which saw the City of London Police working in partnership with the Food Standards Agency and Crown Prosecution Service.
With the growing pressure to produce affordable food for the world’s 7.4 billion people, there is an increasing temptation to cut corners on health, safety and quality controls. With that being said, there is a clear and urgent need to standardise regulations on an international level as the global population continues to grow. Food certification to standards such as ISO 22000 promises a higher standard of transparency. It helps companies produce safer food, which in turn enables companies to gain the trust of consumers. Certification helps identify inherent weaknesses in the chain and helps to communicate concerns before they become a scandal. ISO 22000 helps manufacturers ensure food quality and safety, uses traceability to guarantee the origin of food ingredients and improves efficiency in the food supply chain.