According to a new report, European countries are still facing several challenges around risk-based food fraud controls.
Since 2019, member states must carry out risk-based controls to detect fraudulent and deceptive practices.
The EU Commission’s DG Sante project between 2020 and 2022 collected information on the arrangements in place by member states to fight fraud in the agri-food chain.
An overview report focused on eight countries and how authorities developed controls and strategies to combat fraudulent practices. It covers the challenges, opportunities, and good practice examples in fraud-related controls. The report is based on two pilot studies of Ireland and Austria and six fact-finding studies of Sweden, Latvia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Poland, and Germany.
Lack of a definition
There is no clear definition of the term “fraudulent and deceptive practices” in the agri-food chain at the European level. Most authorities said the lack of an agreed EU definition poses a challenge to implement fraud-related parts of the regulation.
Some examples of fraudulent practices in the fact-finding studies were either directly related to food safety risks or, due to a lack of traceability of products, such risks couldn’t be excluded.
Studies also found planning risk-based controls is complex, and fraud-related control measures can be resource-intensive. They revealed that while fraudulent and deceptive practices frequently have a cross-country dimension, there are examples where risks are national, regional, or local.
Activities of Europol, such as Operation Opson and the EU coordinated actions on herbs, spices, and honey, help member states to gain experience in the fight against deceptive practices. Actions will focus on illegal plant protection products in 2023 and seafood short-weighting in 2024.
All EU nations carry out some controls related to adulteration of food products, use of illegal substances, or quality aspects of food. Although the intensity, scope, and scale of e-commerce controls vary significantly, such checks generally consider fraud-related aspects.
Fraudulent practices in the food chain may be linked to other illegal activities, such as tax evasion, undeclared and illegal work, theft, and smuggling. The analysis found the level of cooperation between national agencies varied.
Use of data and resource issues
All member states make use of the EU Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN); however, sometimes there are significant delays in replies because of technical problems or staff shortages, and in other cases, the use of alternative communication channels meant the outcomes of investigations were not recorded, leading to reduced effectiveness of the network, according to the report.
The fact-finding studies revealed that member states find it challenging to perform adequate vulnerability assessments and to identify new emerging risks but are working on ways to collect and analyze data. Fraud-related training for staff doing official controls was another area that needed attention.
Risk-based planned controls and targeted investigations based on intelligence are both suitable ways to fight fraudulent practices and complement each other.
Courts decide penalties and sanctions as part of national legislation. This does not always ensure that economic gain obtained by the operator through such practices is sufficiently considered when imposing penalties, said the report.
In March 2023, the EU Commission published a guidance document to support member states in combatting agri-food supply chain fraud. The Commission’s Better Training for Safer Food (BTSF) training initiative also improves knowledge on fighting fraudulent practices.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)