Are food labels the next target for fraud? Europol seems to think so. Anything that adds value is a potential target for fraud and, with 40% of shoppers prepared to pay more for an eco-labelled product, reliable eco-labels add clear extra value.
The Europol report identifies cases of various European organic labels being used fraudulently and warns: ‘It is possible that other certification labels will see similar growth in the misuse of their labels in the future.’
However, the report’s warning that experienced counterfeiters can copy labels and add them to their products misses one of the most powerful elements of a respectable label - the detailed supply chain assessment preceding its use. Fairtrade, Soil Association Organic and my own organisation’s MSC Certified Sustainable Seafood labels are all ISEAL compliant. That means - among other things - they have solid standards and, importantly, a solid traceability system.
While any good printer could fake an ecolabel, faking the traceability and the database your customers will check is nigh on impossible. This isn’t an online auction or a market stall.These labels are the end product of decades of experience in traceability certification and a raft of checks and balances.
But what’s to stop someone simply slapping a logo on the pack, you might ask?
Our experience has shown that the supply chains that have invested in achieving certification are by far the most motivated in defending them. Not to mention the increasingly active role played by NGOs and the media in scrutinising claims. However, we can’t just depend on vigilance and competitive pressures. That’s why the Marine Stewardship Council builds on our supply chain standard with independent, scientific product testing.
With DNA testing becoming increasingly sophisticated and less and less expensive, the chances of identifying simple ‘bait-and-switch’ frauds have become far higher. DNA testing of cod is now so sophisticated it can tell you not only the species, but which fishery it came from.
The true strength - and the reason for our near-perfect score on the DNA testing - is the traceability certification behind it. Every piece of MSC-certified seafood stays clearly identified and separated from non-certified seafood throughout the supply chain. There’s also the dull-sounding (but surprisingly powerful) mass balance that ensures a supplier can’t sell more MSC certified fish than they bought and processed.
So has anyone tried it on with MSC? Of course they have. And they’ve been caught. We’ve intercepted a few accidents and rare attempts at deliberate fraud thanks in part to an ever-vigilant army of engaged partners. We also have a running programme to ensure our traceability certification continues to deserve its rock solid reputation.
Europol may be right. We may yet see a growth in attempts at ecolabel fraud. But, with good partners and the tools we have at our disposal, we’re ready for them.
Toby Middleton is senior country manager at the MSC