chris elliott quote web

During a normal working week I get details of two to four major food fraud incidents being uncovered somewhere in the world. Olive oil, meat, honey and fish are often repeat offenders.

From time to time I get calls from journalists telling me there are ‘rumours’ that something big is due to break and asking if I have any insights into the latest scam.

This happened last week and it related to a cheese fraud story emerging from the US. What appears to have happened, according to Bloomberg, is the unearthing of a huge scam around Parmesan cheese. They alleged that the grated cheese was being ‘cut’ with fillers such as cardboard. A fairly typical fraud in many ways, with a high value product being substituted with a low (no) value material, in a highly competitive marketplace where dog eats dog to win supply contracts.

However, it is not so typical in some other ways. For instance, this is not a complex, international supply chain, in fact it is rather local and straightforward. The other point that sticks out at me in the reports is the suggestion that several very large retailers have been duped into buying the inferior quality product.

From my reasonably good knowledge of the rigour that the UK multiples put into checking their supply chains, and that grated Parmesan has not come on to their (or my) radar screens, perhaps this tells us something rather worrying. If there is any opportunity to cheat and get away with it, someone somewhere will try it. So how is it possible to build resilience around food fraud that can strike at any time in any food commodity?

One of the measures (and only one) has to be to get better testing methods, not tests that look for particular contaminants but tests that look for abnormal food ‘fingerprints’. My own research group and others are working on such technologies. I’m also aware some multinational food companies are now employing such methods in protecting their global supply chains from fraud.

New technology must be seen as one of the tools in our toolbox to fight back against those who want to cheat the industry and consumers.

Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute of Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast