Apart from quality and safety, consumers also concern about the authenticity of a food. No one wishes to buy expensive food products substituted with a cheaper alternative, mislabelled or with false statements about the ingredients, geographic origin, plant or animal origin.
“Food fraud” is a term generally referring to the intentional act of defrauding buyers of food for economic gain. It is a worldwide problem on the rise and affects not only consumers but also to other stakeholders in the food supply chain (e.g. food producers, processors, distributors, retailers, etc.). In European Union, the most typical example of food fraud was the “horse meat in beef” scandal occurred in 2013; while a major food fraud in China was the “melamine in milk powder” incident in 2008. Other examples of food fraud include but not limited to:
Problems of Food Fraud
Not all food fraud incidents are injurious to human health (e.g. substitution of wild-caught groupers with farmed groupers only leads to economic loss); but some will result in serious food safety problems (e.g. melamine incident caused almost 300,000 children in China fell ill and at least six died).
Moreover, food fraud can also be a big concern for consumers with religious beliefs e.g. eating beef pies falsely labelled as Halal but with pork ingredients will render Muslims violating their dietary laws.
Databases of Food Fraud
In United States, there is a Food Fraud database established by U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP)1 who have compiled numerous scholarly and media articles concerning food fraud.
In European Union, consumers may also find fraudulent food products via an existing database called Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)2. Moreover, some EU countries e.g. United Kingdom, have already developed national food fraud databases.
In this connection, Hong Kong government should also consider to establish a food fraud database. This helps to analyse the situation and the emerging pattern of food fraudulent activities in Hong Kong, and better protect the health of the local citizens.
Detection of Food Fraud
Several analytical techniques are widely used in food authentication. For example, chromatographic methods (e.g. GCMS) are used to separate and characterize the components in foods; stable isotope analysis allows identification of geographic origin of a food; DNA-based methods are of increasing importance for species authentication (e.g. identification of pork component in Halal food products). Food testing helps to verify the correctness of the declarations made on the food label (e.g. ingredient & origin)
Combat Food Fraud
Once a food fraud incident occurs, it may take a lot of time and resources to restore consumer and market confident. In order to combat food fraud incidents, government should strengthen the controls along the food supply chain (e.g. regular unannounced checks to identify fraudulent activities), toughen penalties for fraudsters, and increase testing of food prone to fraud e.g. milk, vegetable oils, spices, seafood, etc.