Food fraud is about “any suspected intentional action by businesses or individuals for the purpose of deceiving purchasers and gaining undue advantage therefrom, in violation of the rules referred to in Article 1(2) of Regulation (EU) 2017/625 (the agri-food chain legislation)”. These intentional infringements to the EU agri-food chain legislation may hinder the proper functioning of the internal market and may also constitute a risk to human, animal or plant health, to animal welfare or to the environment as regards GMOs and plant protection products.
Scandals such as the "rapeseed oil" fraud intended for industrial use (1981) affected about 20.000 people and led to between 370 and 835 fatalities in Spain, dioxin in Belgium resulting in massive economic losses (1999), milk adulterated with melamine in China resulting in more than 50.000 sick babies and around six fatalities (2008), and more recently, methanol poisoning from the sale of illegal spirits which caused around 59 casualties in the Czech Republic and Poland (2012-2014), horse meat in beef products (2013), fipronil in eggs (2017) and the slaughter of sick cows (2019) have also drawn worldwide attention.
Different types of food fraud
Four key operative criteria are referred to for distinguishing whether a case should be considered as fraud or as non-compliance: if a case matches all four criteria, then it could be considered a suspicion of fraud.
These criteria correspond to the rules currently in place in the Member States to report frauds:
- Violation of EU rules: it entails a violation of one or more rules codified in the EU agri-food chain legislation as referred to in Article 1(2) of Regulation (EU) 2017/625.
- Deception of customers: this criterion entails some form of deception of the customers/consumers (example: altered colouring or altered labels, which mystify the true quality or, in worse cases even the nature of a product). Moreover, the deceptive element may also come in the form of a public health risk as some real properties of the product are hidden (for example, in the case of undeclared allergens).
- Undue advantage: the act brings some form of direct or indirect economic advantage for the perpetrator.
- Intention: this criterion can be verified through a number of factors which give strong grounds to believe that certain non-compliances are not happening by chance, such as the replacement of a high quality ingredient with a lower quality one (if a contamination due to production processes is possible, when an ingredient is mostly replaced with a lower quality one there is substitution, which often implies fraudulent intent).
The ability to recognise fraudulent activity presents a challenge, not only due to the various forms it can take but also owing to the need to distinguish deliberate acts from accidental or unintentional ones, which could equally affect the safety or quality of the foodstuff concerned. A more extreme aspect with implications for defence concerns intentional adulteration ideologically motivated to harm such as through bio-terrorism.
Food integrity, four categories
For more information: "Handbook on Food Authenticity Issues and Related Analytical Techniques".
This Handbook has been written by nearly 50 experts in food authenticity, it is the result of European collaboration through the EU-funded Food Integrity project