What’s for dinner would seem to be one of life’s more straightforward questions. However, if my 36 years of food safety experience have taught me anything, it is that the answer to that question isn’t as simple as it once was. Most consumers would be surprised to find just how complex simple meals have become. For example, pizza is a seemingly simple family favorite in American homes so how complex could it possibly be? A recent analysis of the components of a pizza, carried out for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, found that it was made from 35 different ingredients that passed through 60 countries on five different continents.
With ingredients of a simple dish like pizza coming from so many different countries, it’s not surprising that this complexity has given rise to food fraud. Increasingly, what’s on your plate at dinner, not to mention breakfast and lunch, may not be quite what it’s cracked up to be. Food fraud—beef that’s horsemeat, grouper that’s actually tilapia—thins the global economy every year by an estimated $49 billion. That’s a lot of bogus burgers and suspect sushi. Yet containing the problem is no small task. Some experts estimate that approximately 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. food supply is affected by food fraud. Another study found that about 10 percent of the food Americans buy is likely adulterated. The sprawling, complex modern food industry can be difficult to monitor and regulate – making it an easy target.
Food fraud, the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging, is not new. For as long as people have sold food to one another and not just grown it to feed themselves, the road to market has been mapped with cut corners. By the 17th century, governments started pushing back, introducing food purity laws to detect, among other things, watered-down milk and bread plumped up with chalk. But that kind of after-the-fact reaction is not enough to discourage sophisticated 21st century criminals, who are sometimes armed with high tech resources like encrypted websites and who know that they can depend on often lax, inconsistent or ill-defined regulations to raise their odds of getting away with it. Worse still, investigations into the European horse meat scandal of 2013 found that the profit margins available to the more sophisticated and organized criminals are beginning to approach those normally associated with other forms of organized crime.
Much of the challenge is rooted in the extraordinary reach of the global marketplace. When a Chilean summer strawberry can make it to the top a banana parfait in a Manhattan restaurant in mid-winter, we’re in a new world that demands a whole new level of vigilance. It’s a food supply network with so many links that tampering with just one can easily go unnoticed.
The 2013 horsemeat scandal is a good illustration of this concept. By the time French authorities identified a French meat wholesaler as the prime suspect in passing off horsemeat as beef throughout Europe, sales had stretched over several months, across 13 countries and reached into 28 companies. At the same time, Great Britain’s food regulatory agency reported that six horse carcasses tested positive for an equine painkiller, which may have entered the human food chain in France. Then, almost simultaneously, arrests were made on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants in Wales.
Along with the ever increasing complexity and vulnerability of our food supply chain, the fact is that when it comes to what we eat, most of us want it all – we want what’s on our plates to be affordable, high quality and authentic. That’s not an easy recipe, which is another reason the unscrupulous start cooking up schemes. Consider what’s happened in that haven of excellent fish restaurants, Boston. Investigative reporters from the Boston Globe found that fish served in local restaurants was wrongly identified about half the time. That means frozen fish declared fresh and lower class fish passed off as top of the line, with prices raised accordingly. Investigations by public interest groups from Florida to California have reported numerous instances of the same kind of fraud, as well as fish shipped from afar labeled as locally caught.
So what is being done to protect consumers? Many companies are developing a food defense plan to limit intentional food tampering and to comply with food safety certifications, vendor qualifications and regulation. Many of the world's largest food retailers are now mandating supplier certification to Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards, which emphasize food security and defense. These proactive strategies require a lot of work up front in defining and resolving hazards in every aspect of the food supply chain, but they make it much harder for crooks to get their hands into our food.
From a regulatory standpoint, the United States took a step forward in protecting its food supply with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which provides another opportunity for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and industry to address economic adulteration. FSMA provides a science- and risk-based approach for companies to verify their ingredient suppliers, including ways to assure the public and FDA that industry has processes in place to detect economic adulteration.
But more is needed. Increasing engagement and collaboration is also essential to protecting our global food supply. The key is for everyone with a stake in food fraud to work together, sharing data and insight from every level of the food supply network before fraud happens. Identifying a formal way to collaborate with industry, government, academia and non-governmental organizations will improve communication between the many stakeholders involved in food distribution. For example, when manufacturers and retailers pool resources to work in smaller, more robust and collaborative networks, they dramatically magnify their ability to see into their supply chains. That makes it much more difficult for someone to cheat without someone noticing. NSF international, an independent non-profit health organization, has just completed groundbreaking research for the U.K. Food Standards Agency that models how and why food criminals can be expected to target particular foods, thereby helping the good guys target checks and preventive interventions.
Additionally, partnerships between national and international governments can change the current fragmented, catch-as-catch-can approach to a more comprehensive, manageable regime of continuous oversight and rigorous enforcement. As part of this integration, shared standards and intelligence are crucial to addressing threats that are further magnified by globalization. My organization, NSF International, has mobilized its global network of food auditors and testing and technical experts as well as assembled food practitioners, regulators, scientists and academics to help further define the food fraud problem and provide guidelines and best practices to help safeguard against it.
The result of this effort led to the NSF Integrity and Traceability Audit Standard (IAT), which provides a rigorous assessment of a manufacturing site’s ability to produce products to agreed-upon, stringent specifications.
These are just a few examples of what more can be done to help keep our food supply chain honest. Food fraud is a problem that affects all of us. And, in the end, the most important drivers of change will be – all of us. Heightened awareness of the problem, greater understanding of the challenge and more determined insistence that the food industry and government work together to combat the deception in our diets is how we can all play a role in ensuring that what’s for dinner is for real.