Lamb dishes without any lamb in them, extra virgin olive oil of lamp oil quality, and oregano padded out with olive leaves. The Consumer Union found a lot of examples of wrongly labelled food in a recent random sampling exercise – something which may suggest fraud. And yet we cannot say for sure that more and more fraud is going on, says Saskia van Ruth, professor of Food Authenticity at Wageningen University & research, and Authenticity and nutrients group leader at Rikilt.
You wrote last year that the number of reports of food fraud had gone up internationally. Does this mean there is more fraud going on?
‘You can’t jump to that conclusion. There are no official lists that tell you how often fraud and mislabelling occur. What is more, it is coming in for more attention these days and that makes us notice it more. Companies and government bodies became a lot more aware of it because of the horsemeat scandal.’
So it is not clear whether food fraud is increasing?
‘There are trends that raise the risks in the long term. Due to globalization we source our food from all over the world. And the economic crisis put companies under pressure. Fraud can be motivated by greed or by need.’
What are the risk factors for tampering with food?
‘Some products are more vulnerable to it than others. The worst you can do with an apple is replace it with a different variety, but with liquids or powders fraud is easier. Other products are more vulnerable because they come in large volumes. Long chains play a role too. Goods from certain Asian countries carry different risks than the same products from the United Kingdom.’
What can we do about fraud?
‘Companies use ‘hard controls’. They can carry out tests, for example, or monitor the mass balance at suppliers: is what comes out the same as what went it or does it multiply miraculously somewhere along the line? Then there are ‘soft controls’: controls on the ethical aspect of supplier companies and your own organization. Is the focus entirely on monetary targets or also on the way they are met? Is there a code of conduct and is it observed?’