Does science keep up with food systems or do food systems keep up with science?
Returning from the final EU Food Integrity conference -a meeting of thought leaders in the world of scientific methods to combat food fraud- I must confess to a feeling of Deja vu. I have been here before and listened to several the same scientists (all of whom I greatly respected). I sat in similar darkened auditoriums and wandered around other poster sessions brimming with complex diagrams, details and data; navigated trade displays from leading scientific providers; and networked with friends and colleagues, regulators and providers. On previous occasions, as with this one, we all had a common purpose – a desire to make food supply chains safer.
The problem is not getting smaller
On occasion, when you walk away from a conference, you feel buoyed and inspired. Not so with this event. I must admit to feeling a little despondent. Here, in the room, were some of the best scientific minds in the field of food authenticity, yet, the complexity of the problem they were trying to solve is not getting simpler, the scale of the problem not getting any smaller and the stakes not getting any less. While the conference was titled ‘Food Integrity’, in reality, it was focused on addressing food fraud and contamination. Speakers crossed the stage on a number of topics; including the role of the European Commission, the development of portable authentication devices, standardisation and harmonisation, targeted versus non-targeted methods for authentication, blockchain and traceability. Buzz words abounded; heads nodded; science proposals were imagined.
“Food fraud is a transnational crime”
One of the first signals at the conference that perhaps the issue is not going to be resolved simply was in an opening address from Razvan Anistoroaei from the European Commission. Anistoroaei noted that “food fraud is a transnational criminal acitivity” and therein lies one of the biggest barriers. You see, most of the efforts that we are taking to address food fraud stem from the simple fact that we cannot protect product across borders. We cannot easily protect our brands across borders, we cannot protect our reputation. So, to mitigate this, we add increasing complexity to supply chains; demanding more and more from our producers but delivering less and less to consumers. In the meantime, fraud continues. Paul Brereton, well known and respected in the authenticity field, followed Anistoroaei and noted that there is “no simple approach to addressing the problem”. Brereton was followed by Peter Whelan, of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, who talked about food fraud not being about food “it’s about a person” – the person committing the crime or the person who is a victim of the crime. Effectively, Whelan reoriented the problem away from science to the fact that this is fundamentally a human crime. Yes, it does impact on profit and brand, but those should be considered secondary.
The industry often knows
Whelan went on to argue that he believes that the industry often knows when something ‘bad’ is happening to either their brand or within their sector, but they are reluctant to share information; for fear of the impact on their brand, or, for commercial (competitive reasons). Somewhat idealistically, he called on the food industry to share intelligence and to become more transparent. It wasn’t just the industry that he had in his sights; he went on to discuss the role of the regulator, and that the lack of harmonisation of standards (or definitions) hindered the ability to prosecute. It is difficult to say something is ‘not X’ when you don’t have a universal definition of what ‘X’ should look like – great examples of this are honey or olive oil. While we ‘know’ what they are in the absence of approved methods of authentication, it is difficult to say that something is truly as claimed. Whelan also took a shot at the low level of deterrence that exist for food crimes, citing a €500 fine for mislabelling of Scottish salmon as inadequate – the risk of a fine was far out-weighed by the economic benefit of committing the fraud.
“We do not validate”
To my mind, it was rather ironic to hear Elke Anklam from the European Commission talk about their initiative to monitor media reports of food fraud. While it is great that the monitoring is occurring, it seemed somewhat problematic, when asked how the EC verify that the cases are real, to respond “we do not validate it”. Validation is a difficult and time-consuming process, and yes there is a trade-off between taking time to verify stories and notifying the public in a timely manner; however, the potential for spreading unsubstantiated reports about food fraud seems beneath the quality that should be expected of the EC.
Left despondent by the first morning
The unexpected take-homes from the first morning of the conference were that the problem remains complex; a lack of regulatory agreement and support hinders prosecution (and, therefore, deterrence); the food industry are unwilling partners in solving the problem and that the EC were monitoring, but not deeply. At the conclusion of the first morning it was a somewhat despondent food integrity advocate who packed up her laptop and went off to lunch break.