Food fraud could cost your business

  Food safety is something we tend to take for granted. When we scan well-stocked supermarket shelves to select food and beverages for our weekly shopping, most of us trust – and expect – that the contents of the packets of foodstuffs on display will match the information on the labels.

 The provenance of the food is something we rarely question, but is everything we eat and drink really what we think it is?

 A food-related scandal has the potential to shatter consumer confidence in the food industry and turn the spotlight on the whole issue of food safety and food crime, exposing potential fault lines in increasingly complex food industry supply chains, which offer huge potential to criminals to pursue their misdeeds. The consequences of such fraud are estimated to cost legitimate food retailers up to billions of shillings a year. 

Dressing up food ingredients is common practice worldwide. But the scale of the fraud could make us choke. 

Food fraud is committed when food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain.

 This involves criminal activity that can include food mislabelling, substitution, counterfeiting, misbranding, dilution and adulteration. While food fraud primarily results in cheating customers, it can also lead to significant food safety risks for consumers.

Over the past decades, food supply chains have grown increasingly complex and many of today’s food products repeatedly cross national boundaries, creating more opportunities for criminals to practise food fraud. 

Consider this. An average cod can travel 10,000 miles before it ends up on a dinner plate. It may be caught in the Bering Sea, then prepared and frozen in a factory in eastern China, taken by cargo ship for processing in Europe or the US, and undergo one final journey before ending up as, say, a fish finger on a plate in Uganda. The farm-to-fork journey has involved a lot of hands, with a lot of opportunity for criminals to step in and exploit weak links in the chain.

Along with a growing global population – and as the world becomes ever more complex and interconnected – there is a clear, urgent and compelling need to standardise regulations on an international level. 

Food fraud has become more sophisticated and harder to detect, presenting regulators with an even bigger challenge. The scale of the challenge is huge. 

Supermarkets stock thousands of different food products, and smaller food businesses do not have the resources to “police” their supply chains.

 With a growing pressure to produce affordable food, there is increasing temptation to cut corners on health, safety and quality controls, which in turn puts more pressure on government and food regulators. 

A certification body like Unbs plays a critical role in efforts to improve the safety of food systems. Food certification promises higher standards and transparency, and an effective weapon in tackling food fraud. The Food Safety Management System certification scheme helps companies to produce safe food and gain the trust of customers. 

These standards are designed to provide companies in the food industry with an internationally recognised certification. 

Of course, any conversation on food safety and food fraud has to include the consumer. The role that consumers play is a big issue. 

While standards help manufacturers ensure food safety and uses traceability to guarantee the origin of food ingredients, consumers bear some responsibility for safety after purchase if they fail to handle food properly by allowing cross-contamination and poor hygienic practices and ignoring advice from manufacturers. 

The responsibility of food safety should not be left entirely to Unbs alone, better consumer education and knowledge are key. One challenge for many consumers is understanding the basics of handling food safely at home.

Ms Joselyn Biira Mwiine is the public relations officer 
at Uganda National Bureau of Standards.
[email protected]