Food industry faces "higher level of risk than it has acknowledged", Food Forensics Alison Johnson said

Food industry faces "higher level of risk than it has acknowledged", Food Forensics Alison Johnson said

Participants within an EU-funded research project on fighting food fraud believe they can help rebuild consumer confidence in Europe's food sector, following last year’s horsemeat scandal.

FoodIntegrity, a five-year project led by the UK's Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), will bring together food industry experts and government institutes around the world to create an early-warning system to flag up food fraud risks and close gaps in knowledge regarding detection. 

Data from the UK National Audit Office released last October suggests the problem of fraud has grown significantly within its country, for instance. It revealed UK local authorities registered 1,380 new reports of food fraud in 2012, up two-thirds since 2010.

In the wake of the scandal involving horsemeat being passed off as beef last year, the European Commission has proposed a range of new measures to try to prevent fraud, of which FoodIntegrity is the latest initiative.

A preparatory and closed meeting of consortium members took place in February. In a launch note released last week, the Commission said: "Maintaining the integrity of European foods is vital to protect both consumers and industry and there must be consumer confidence in the authenticity of all food products."

Paul Brereton, coordinator of FoodIntegrity, and co-ordinator of agri-food research at FERA, said the project is a significant effort to connect the dots between national experts and food standard databases. "There are a few different sides to food fraud but our key question is 'Does the product match its description?'" 

One of the major difficulties in responding to transnational food fraud in the past has been getting national authorities to share information quickly and coordinating scientific expertise in a crisis. Brereton said FoodIntegrity is a direct response. "We will mobilise research rapidly in the event of a major food fraud crisis. For instance, if there was a horsemeat crisis tomorrow, we could provide immediate expert advice to the Commission and industry about technical responses."

Brereton's agency is heading a heavyweight list of participants, including Italian food group Barilla, international colourings company D.D. Williamson (DDW) and French biotech testing specialists Eurofins Scientific.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization, the EU's Joint Research Centre and the China National Research Institute of Food and Fermentation Industries (CNRIFFI) are also involved, alongside other participants including Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the UK's Food Forensics Ltd.

Alison Johnson, a director at Food Forensics, said: "The food industry needs to accept there is a higher level of risk than they previously acknowledged and that investment in proactive interventions will manage business risk and deter fraud."

The project will create a system enabling the sharing of information from databases profiling the characteristics of legitimate goods, helping regulators apply and assess standards to detect counterfeit and mislabelled goods. But researchers will also share knowledge on new scientific verification methods such as isotopic fingerprinting forensic techniques. Researchers are looking at how statistical analysis can help predict the risk of interference in supply chains. 

"One really interesting piece of work we will be doing is working on developing early warning systems to anticipate food fraud. How can we learn from the insurance industry's early warning systems to predict risk, for example?" Brereton said. "An example might be detecting poor crop yields, which affect the price level and could lead to fraud attempts."

Johnson said the project offered a good springboard for attacking the problem. "The very fact this project has been commissioned, bringing together a wealth of EU expertise, has really started the conversation across the EU."

The horsemeat scandal brought the issue of food contamination into sharp relief last year. The saga prompted the UK - one of the markets most rocked by the affair - to launch a review into the country's "food system".

Announcing the review in June, the UK government said the study would look at "weaknesses in food supply networks" that could affect food safety and public health.

In December, the head of the review, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen's University Belfast, published his interim findings - and warned "a range of weaknesses" across the supply chain left the industry open to fraudsters.

"The UK food industry is currently too vulnerable to criminals wishing to perpetrate fraud. We need a culture within businesses involved in supplying food that focusses on depriving those who seek to deceive consumers. Government, and in particular a more robust Food Standards Agency has a major role to play partnering these efforts," Prof. Elliott wrote in the initial findings of his review.

Prof. Elliott's final report is, a Defra official indicated last week, expected to be published in late May. His findings will be closely watched and will add to the belief - as advocated by those behind the FoodIntegrity project - that food fraud is an increasingly serious issue for the sector.

Additional reporting by Dean Best.