The final report of the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks was published on Sept. 4, 2014. Food fraud is the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging and is considered by food safety experts at NSF International to be a global issue that cannot be dealt with solely inside national borders. Effective implementation of the report’s recommendations will require industry and government coordination as well as expert support to protect consumers.
“As the Elliott report makes clear, criminal food fraud is a very serious problem in the international food supply chain, the total scale of which is unknown, but ranging from relatively minor ‘casual dishonesty’ to organized crime encouraged by huge financial rewards. Limited intelligence means that we simply do not know the exact extent of fraud. What we do know is that it can be a cause of major food safety risks which severely undermines consumer trust in the food industry,” said David Richardson, EMEA Food Division vice president at NSF International, a global public health organization and food safety service provider operating in more than 155 countries.
Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University in Belfast was commissioned by the UK government to conduct the review in the wake of a major food fraud crisis in 2013 involving horsemeat found in beef products. In the report, Elliott discusses issues impacting consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products, including any systemic failures with implications for food safety and public health, as well as makes recommendations for addressing such failures. His recommendations are based around eight key pillars:
- Consumers first - Industry, government and enforcement agencies should always put the needs of consumers above all other considerations. This means giving food safety and food crime absolute priority over other objectives.
- Zero tolerance - In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive.
- Intelligence gathering - There needs to be shared investment between government and industry in intelligence gathering and sharing, although to ensure its effectiveness, all organizations must have regard to the sensitivities of the market.
- Laboratory services - Those involved with audit, inspection and enforcement must have access to resilient, sustainable laboratory services that use standardized, tested approaches.
- Audit - Industry and regulators must give weight to audit and assurance regimes, but also work to minimize duplication where possible. Industry should move to a modular form of auditing.
- Government support - Government support for the integrity and assurance of food supply networks must be kept specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART).
- Leadership - Clear leadership and co-ordination of investigations and prosecutions is required and the public interest must be recognized in active enforcement and meaningful penalties for significant food crimes. A new Food Crime Unit, based on the Dutch model, should be created within the FSA and become the lead agency for food crime.
- Crisis management - When a serious incident occurs the necessary mechanisms are in place so that regulators and industry can deal with it effectively.
NSF International’s Opinion
David Richardson commented, “NSF International is supportive of all measures to improve food safety and levels of trust between consumers and the food industry. The Elliott report makes many sound recommendations, which if implemented effectively will provide a vastly superior coordinated approach between government and industry to tackling food fraud. The industry now needs expert support to translate these recommendations into practical strategies and systems to protect consumers as well as their own brands.”
NSF International was recently commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) to develop a risk assessment framework, which is discussed in NSF’s white paper, “The ‘new’ phenomenon of criminal fraud in the food supply chain.” This framework works as an evidence- and risk-based diagnostic tool that helps to identify risk of fraud in the global food supply chain across different product categories.
Elliott has drawn attention to a major problem that not only affects the UK but the entire global supply chain. “Food fraud does not respect national boundaries and that is a major reason why it is so difficult to track. Transparency, traceability and data sharing among government, industry and third-party organizations worldwide will become major themes in addressing global food fraud threats,” said David Edwards, NSF International food safety consultant and former director of NSF International’s Global Food Safety Division. “Organizations such as NSF International with global resources, technical expertise and cooperative relationships with both industry and government can play a crucial role in facilitating intelligence sharing and developing solutions.”