Organisation - February 22, 2018

No watering down - Professor produces fraud checker for food companies

Albert Sikkema

The horsemeat scandal in 2013 made food fraud a hot topic again in the Netherlands. Professor Saskia van Ruth has designed a checklist that companies can use to assess and eliminate the risk of scams in their supply chains.

text Albert Sikkema illustration Paul Gerlach

Food fraud means deliberately falsifying food products and food ingredients for your own financial gain, says Saskia van Ruth. Take the fraud committed by a Dutch meat processing company that was caught selling horsemeat as beef in 2013. Other examples are oregano mixed with chopped olive leaves, ‘farm cheese’ that is not actually made from raw milk or ‘fresh meat’ that has spent years in a freezer.

Van Ruth heads the Authenticity and Nutrients group at Rikilt and she is a professor by special appointment in the Food Quality and Design group in Wageningen. Although the calls to combat food fraud are becoming ever louder, you cannot check every batch of food that is produced in the Netherlands or imported here, she says. ‘Anyway, the fraud will already have happened by then. You really want a good system that can prevent fraud.’

That is why she and her colleague Pieternel Luning at Food Quality and Design contacted criminologists at the VU University Amsterdam about seven years ago. They started doing joint research on food fraud, which became the basis for a risk assessment that they drew up. They wanted an overview of the factors that make food fraud more likely.

Fraud checker
That research has now resulted in a checklist with 50 questions for food companies. They can compare the situation in their own company against six food supply chains described by the researchers varying in the risk of fraud, from a low risk to a high risk. The checklist, the SSAFE Food Fraud tool, helps track down activities that are susceptible to fraud so that the company can improve its control over the activity or stop it. PricewaterhouseCoopers has now developed a handy app for the fraud checker.

The checker is based in part on basic knowledge about food fraud. For example, there is more risk with liquids than solids because liquid foodstuffs are easier to dilute and mix with other liquids. Van Ruth: ‘Adding water to milk is simple and everyone in the supply chain knows that this is possible.’ Products consisting of small particles, such as coffee, cocoa and spices, are also easier to mix with cheaper ingredients than larger products. In addition, the risk of fraud increases as the food supply chain becomes longer and more complex. ‘In that situation, there are more candidates who could commit fraud and these chains are often less transparent,’ explains Van Ruth. ‘What is more, consumers seem a long way off for many intermediaries. Anonymous players make the supply chain vulnerable.’

In your own back yard
Companies often see fraud as something that happens externally, notes Van Ruth. They therefore usually carry out thorough checks of the products they buy from external suppliers. However, only one third of companies also check the products that leave their company. Yet fraud can also be committed in your own back yard without the company directors being aware of this. To identify this kind of fraud, the directors should check which employees have access to technology that could be used to falsify a product.

But why would a worker commit fraud without the boss knowing if this does not give them a financial advantage? ‘It’s not always about money,’ replies Van Ruth. ‘Employees might want to achieve their targets, avoid hassle or get a promotion.’ That is why it is also important to find out whether a buyer is putting pressure on a supplier to deliver the goods cheaply or fast, and how dependent the supplier is on the buyer. ‘If you make demands on your suppliers that are almost impossible to satisfy, you are virtually asking for fraud.’

Vulnerability ranking
Based on these guiding principles, Van Ruth and her research partners assessed six food supply chains, for milk, meat, fish, olive oil, spices and organic bananas. The players in the supply chains were given the fraud checker and were asked to use it to evaluate their own situation.

The vulnerability ranking that this gave confirmed the general understanding that the researchers already had about susceptibility to fraud (see inset). Thus the spice industry is where there is most potential for abuse because the supply chain is long and complex, and ground food products can easily be adulterated without anyone noticing.

Six food supply chains listed in order of susceptibility to fraud
Spices Made up of small particles and therefore easy to mix. They are relatively expensive, which can be an incentive to commit fraud, and are traded in long supply chains, so there are more players who could potentially tamper with the product. What is more, the raw materials often come from countries where there is a degree of corruption and few controls.
Olive oil Liquid, so susceptible to fraud. The big question here is whether it is pure olive oil or whether another vegetable oil has been mixed in. Is the oil refined and cold-pressed as the label claims, and is the country of origin correct?
Meat and fish The possibilities for fraud are limited. The biggest risks are in ground meat and meat that is added to other food products. Injecting water into meat to increase the weight is simple and also occurs. That is permitted, which means it is not fraud as long as the manufacturer states this on the label. With fish, it is mainly a question of whether the fish species specified on the packaging is correct.
Milk Although this is a liquid that should be relatively easy to dilute, the chance of fraud is small. Milk is produced locally in short supply chains with close links between the farmers and their cooperative. Moreover, the milk composition is checked in detail on the farm and in the factory.
Organic bananas It is almost impossible to commit fraud with bananas. The only risk is that they might not actually be organic bananas. That is checked pretty thoroughly on the plantations though, where regular measurements are performed to check for chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

The fraud checker can be found at