THE BLOG

Food Fraud: Time to Bite Off More Than We Can Chew

16/04/2015 12:49 BST | Updated 15/06/2015 10:59 BST

Ever eaten a portion of food fraud? Quite probably, and it is time the Government and manufacturers did more to combat a growing problem.

We take for granted that what we consume contains the elements listed on the packaging, or no other elements at all. But this may be naive. Plainly, not everything these days is what it says on the tin.

A revealing report last year claimed that food fraud is now costing UK manufacturers a mouth watering £11.2 billion in lost revenue annually, equivalent to 85 per cent of their profits. But that tells only part of the story.

This is a crime that does more than steal from a business. It threatens human health if ingredients are swapped for cheaper alternatives that might, say, contain harmful allergens.

Even apparently wholefoods can be adulterated: honey packed with antibiotics and sweeteners, that fancy bottle of 100 per cent Italian extra virgin olive oil diluted with some other oil (and not even necessarily from Italy), expensive fish in fact something cheaper.

The report's authors from the University of Portsmouth argue that the problem is in fact so endemic that forensic accountants, whose skill is to uncover financial crime, should be employed by manufacturers to review their businesses.

It is easy to see why. The food and drinks industry faces pressures in a sector where profit margins are wafer thin and supply chains long. The temptation to cut corners with cheaper ingredients or less oversight is high.

What we know is only mildly more alarming that what we probably do not. The horse meat scandal two years ago was a reminder of how much trust we devolve, and still do. Laws may exist to protect consumers, but not enforcing them properly makes them weak.

Food fraud is particularly pernicious because we all must apply levels of trust to what we eat that we would not dream of applying to, say, buying a car or a house. It took a very significant fraud affecting high street food chains (unwittingly) to focus public and politicians.

Trust is also one of the triggers for a forensic accountant: Who has it in a business can often be the start of the trail to whodunnit, in terms of uncovering a crime.

The level of debate and engagement that followed the horse meat scandal should still be present, but is not. Yet the fundamental triggers for fraud remain: complex international supply chains, tight margins and limited policing resources.

Prof Lisa Jack, of the University of Portsmouth's Centre for Counter Fraud Studies, made the point in an interview that food fraud is a fraud issue and that "therefore you need to look at it from a management accounting point of view. It usually does involve firms' accounting and paperwork".

A forensic accountant can work out how vulnerable accounting systems are to abuse.

As consumers we have no choice but to take a food item on trust, however easy it is in an age of global supply chains to hide fraudulent activity. An accountant can be more sceptical.

Fraud has always been with us and may be impossible to remove entirely. In the Middle Ages merchants mixed dust with spices, and even in Victorian times milk was commonly diluted with water and coloured with chalk.

But the difference today is that we are further removed from the source of much of what we eat. A bunch of packaged asparagus is more likely to have come from Peru than Portsmouth. We need to be sure there is accountability.

We are what we eat, knowing exactly what that is should be more guaranteed than it appears to be, and more publicly policed.