Food authenticity experts have said an increase in food fraud is inevitable because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board had a meeting earlier this month and, given the disruption to global supply chains caused by COVID-19 and the diminished level of surveillance, they reported they believes a rise in food fraud is likely.

Multiple packages with counterfeit food supplements were seized during a recent investigation in the EU, according to Europol. The parcels came from Brazil, China and Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. They were falsely declared as confectionery or a specific or generically-named dietary supplement.

The Food Authenticity Network has launched a resource base for food fraud on its website pulling together global information to help combat threats to the supply chain because of the global pandemic.

Pulling resources together
Selvarani Elahi, executive director of the Food Authenticity Network, said by sharing best practices and working together, the impact of food fraud can be minimized.

“The food authenticity website is like a signpost to other resources but it was spread in lots of different places in the network so now on this page you will find direct links. The information page is there and it will be updated if we add anything else and people can contact us if they have a resource they want listed. It will stay there as a resource, it is called COVID-19 because that is the issue at the moment, but these things are equally applicable anytime you have a major disruption to the food supply chain,” she told Food Safety News.

“The U.K. government set this up but now we are working with the food industry and other governments so they can add country specific pages on the website without building their own system. There is a lot of evidence to show that food safety and fraud are interlinked. Usually a lot of food fraud issues become food safety issues because if they are willing to perpetrate fraud they don’t really care about the safety of the food or the ingredients they are putting in.”

The Food Authenticity Network was set-up in July 2015 by the U.K. government after a recommendation in the “Elliott Review.” It now has more than 1,500 members from 69 countries.

The network is an open access website with information on food authenticity testing, food fraud mitigation, and supply chain integrity. It is led by LGC and was set-up with funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. It is currently supported with public-private partnership funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, McCormick and Co., LGC Standards, and the Institute of Food Science & Technology.

Elahi said dealing with fraud when it happens is one thing but most people want to prevent it in the first place so a big focus is the food fraud mitigation guidance.

“The resource is for businesses and people who are looking at their food supply chain, so brokers, agents and anybody that deals with food transactions and has a supply chain to protect,” Elahi said. “There are supply chain traceability systems but also databases that are historic records on food fraud per commodity. Regulators also need to be aware of the tools that industry are using.”

How to measure food fraud levels
A recent European Commission analysis showed a 20 percent increase in reports of food fraud in Europe in 2019. Whether that means people are looking more or there is more fraud is not known but there has to be such a report for fraud to be measured, said Elahi.

“The feeling the board got was multi-faceted. There is limited surveillance going on at the moment with all local authority trading standards and environmental health officers working from home or furloughed. They can’t physically go in and take samples so there is little enforcement going on,” she said.

“It’s hard to put numbers on it but if you look at the combination of factors there is a surplus of goods in some areas and shortages and disruption in others and people are buying from different sources to bridge that gap. The opportunity is definitely there because the demand is there.”

Sterling Crew, chair of the network’s Advisory Board, said the security of the global food supply chain has been disrupted by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, opening up new opportunities for unscrupulous food fraudsters.

“The prevention of this food fraud during the pandemic is paramount to ensure we protect the trust of our consumers and to maintain safe, fair, and sustainable business practices,” he said.

The EU Food Fraud Network and Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System report for 2019 showed 292 requests compared to 234 in 2018. Germany created the most with 76, followed by France with 38, and Belgium with 26. The Commission was responsible for 70 requests.

Fats and oils became the top category based on number of requests placing olive oil as the most notified product. The fish product category was second followed by meat products other than poultry. The main non-compliance was mislabeling which accounted for 47.3 percent of the 431 violations reported in the system.

Return to normal after pandemic?
It is hard to know if shorter and local supply chains popular during the pandemic will continue, said Elahi.

“After horsemeat in 2013 everyone was swearing they were going to buy British, locally and go to farmers markets but it lasted for about a month. As soon as the weather got better and barbecues were out again, everyone went back to supermarkets and the same old buying patterns,” she said.

“As much as I would love to believe everyone is going to fundamentally change because of COVID-19 I don’t see it. No doubt it has made people think and we may purchase in a slightly more responsible manner but I think convenience and the modern lifestyle will still be a factor. We also don’t produce enough food to supply the country so we have to import and need global supply chains. We want to eat avocados every day of the year so there is consumer demand and I don’t think that is going away.”

Guidance from the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that in the rush to identify new suppliers because of short supply or unavailability, businesses may focus less attention on supply chain integrity which provides opportunities for food fraud.

As authorities temporarily reduce food controls, inspections and food sampling, fraudsters may take advantage. There is also likely to be fewer private sector audits and checks of certification and accreditation schemes. Food businesses should also consider introducing risk-based vulnerability assessment systems to mitigate against food fraud.

An increasing number of consumers are turning to e-commerce and online food retail shopping. Many people are now buying food online from sites that have sprung up since the pandemic began. The risk of food fraud in the e-commerce sector can be high, according to the guidance. The document advised authorities to strengthen food controls and oversight of internet sales to protect consumers from misleading e-commerce practices.

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