Food fraud is a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product, for economic gain. Food fraud is a broader term than either the economically motivated adulteration (EMA) defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the more specific general concept of food counterfeiting. Food fraud may not include “adulteration” or “misbranding,” as defined in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), when it involves acts such as tax-avoidance and smuggling. The economic motivation behind food fraud is distinctly different from those for food safety, food defense, and food quality. The cause of an event might be food fraud, but if a public health threat becomes involved, the effect is an adulterated product and a food safety incident. All of this is under the umbrella of food protection, which encompasses food fraud, food quality, food safety, and food defense.
Economically Motivated Adulteration defined EMA as: “… the fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production. EMA includes dilution of products with increased quantities of an already present substance to the extent that such dilution poses a known or possible health risk to consumers, as well as the addition or substitution of substances in order to mask dilution.” The corollary concept of economically motivated misbranding is when an act specifically meets the FD&C Act definition of “misbranding” and not “adulteration”.
It is valuable to review these terms without the economic motivation component. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the term adulteration as: to corrupt, debase, or make impure by the addition of a foreign or inferior substance or element; especially: to prepare for sale by replacing more valuable with less valuable or inert ingredients. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary also defines the term misbrand as: to brand falsely or in a misleading way; specifically: to label in violation of statutory requirements. The FDA defines these two terms more precisely in the FD&C act, in Section 401 and Section 403. Other USDA Acts also define specific types of terms applicable to the foods these laws regulate. According to the regulations (in selected portions of these definitions, as they apply to food), a product is considered adulterated if:
In selected definitions, as they apply to food, a product is considered misbranded if:
The Food Risk Matrix covers the food protection concepts described above; it was created to illustrate the differences among food fraud, food safety, food defense, and food quality. Differences can be categorized according to action (intentional or unintentional) and motivation (economic gain or harm via public health, economic, or terror threat). This table identifies the cause of an incident, in contrast to its effect. For example, the cause or motivation of the act may be food fraud, but if there is a public health threat involved, the effect is an adulterated food product.
How Does Food Fraud Differ From Food Safety?
The cause of the incident needs to be taken into consideration. Food safety focuses on the unintentional contamination of food by known ingredients, organisms, mishandling, or processing. Food fraud differs since it is an intentional act perpetrated for economic gain. Food fraud also differs from food safety since the types of adulterants are unconventional and may only become known once encountered. Food fraud and food safety are very similar in that both can lead to public health risks.
How Does Food Fraud Differ From Food Defense?
Considering the cause of the incident, food defense is a collective term that encompasses preventing and recovering from an intentional and deliberate contamination or tampering of food, motivated by either economic gain or public health harm. Food fraud differs in that the motivation is only for the perpetrator’s economic gain.
How Does Food Fraud Differ From Food Quality?
Considering the cause of the incident, food quality focuses on the unintentional spoilage or deterioration of food that only results in economic loss, such as an unsalable or downgraded product. This could be due to specific product characteristics deviating from industry reference standards, including expected physical or chemical attributes. Similarly, food fraud can result in economic losses in the form of unsalable product, lower margins, lost tax revenues, or brand equity damages from recalls or consumer concerns. If a food quality incident leads to a product that is harmful, then, although the cause is unintentional, the effect makes it a food safety incident.
How does Food Fraud Differ From Food Protection?
Food protection is an overall concept that includes prevention, intervention, and response for incidents in food quality, food safety, food fraud, and food defense. In 2007, the FDA created a Food Protection Plan which stated: “The plan focuses FDA’s efforts to prevent problems before they start. It employs risk-based interventions to ensure preventive approaches are effective. And it provides for a rapid response when contaminated food or feed are detected, or when there is harm to humans or animals.”
What is the Extent of the Food Fraud Problem?
Food fraud is not a new problem, but quantifying the economic or public health impact of food fraud remains difficult; the challenges are similar to other measures of crime. While seizure data is anecdotal and may only reflect crime prevention tactics, an overwhelming set of incidents and case studies indicates that food fraud is a growing trend. Globalization, consolidation of manufacturing, urbanization, and other large-scale trends may provide insights to why food fraud is growing. Globalization requires more diverse and longer food supply chains to meet the demands of growing urban populations. Global economics enable criminal activity, since remoteness and anonymity are often characteristics of such supply chains.
All these features of the fraud opportunity contribute to why this emerging risk evolves so quickly. The very nature of this rapid and varied evolution creates further challenges to determining the extent of the food fraud risk. Researchers usually rely on historical incidents and on quantitative analysis to identify emerging risks, which are then used to create early warning systems. But there is frequent evidence of very creative fraudsters who seem to constantly evolve, to evade the most recent detection hurdles. While the exact probability or risk may not be readily identifiable, the vulnerability or fraud opportunities are more static. Many traditional food risk assessment tools are not holistically applicable for trying to quantify or predict food fraud incidents.
In 2009, several events—such as the wide-spread media coverage of the melamine adulteration and the General Office of Accountability (GAO) report on Seafood Fraud—signaled an increasing awareness of food fraud in the United States. Specifically, the GAO report not only identified various types of adulterated seafood, it also noted gaps and overlaps in the enforcement authority of the various government agencies involved.
Later that year, the FDA held its first Open Meeting on Economically Motivated Adulteration. The FDA addressed the economically motivated adulteration of “food (including dietary supplements and animal food), drugs, medical devices and cosmetics.” This was the first time the FDA officially recognized this emerging risk as an autonomous concept. The meeting became a catalyst for trade and non-governmental organizations to formalize their work in this area. Examples include the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) Consumer Product Fraud Report (January 2010); the US Pharmacopeia (USP) Food Protein Workshop: Developing a Toolbox of Analytical Solutions to Address Adulteration (June 2009); and the USP creating the Expert Panel on Food Ingredient Intentional Adulteration (August 2010).
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