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Defining food fraud nd the chemistry of the crime: an overview

Figure 1. In response to industry and US government agencies, Michigan State University (USA) has created the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP).
Figure 2. The crime triangle involving the likely offender (fraudster), a suitable target (victim) and a capable guardian (guardians/hurdles) to disrupt the chemistry of the crime. Reference: Spink 2010, adapted from Felson’s Crime in everyday life, 1998.

Food fraud is an ancient crime, but it now takes place on a global commercial scale. If bona fide companies can understand the food fraud opportunities that can be perpetrated by specific types of fraudsters, they can evaluate how effective specific types of countermeasures will be in detecting or deterring the specific fraudsters. The goal is to disrupt the chemistry of the crime, reduce fraud opportunities, and decrease the public health risks.

Dr John Spink and Dr Douglas C. Moyer

Food fraud – or more generally, economically motivated adulteration – could be the unauthorised addition of melamine in pet food, a diluted or missing ingredient, country of origin labeling fraud, or a package with an unauthorised use of a trademark. The food fraud issue includes all food-related fraudulent activities that are conducted for economic gain. With product counterfeiting being described as the “second oldest profession,” there is evidence of food fraud going back to Roman times when French and Roman labels were switched. What has changed since antiquity is the scale of the fraud. We are now finding commercial scale global counterfeiting operations. The risk should not be underestimated, since the threat to public health is real and potentially catastrophic.

Product counterfeiting is inceasing in both scope and scale. Consumers and regulators are becoming increasingly concerned about the public health threat from fraudulent food and ingredients. When considering the risks, it is easy to compartmentalise them into intellectual property violations only or to focus solely on physical product adulterations such as dilutions or additive substitutions. The issue is not simply about trademarks or contaminants. It is about fraudsters who are creating public health risks in the pursuit of economic gains.

A push from both industry and government agencies led Michigan State University in the US  to create the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP) [Figure 1]. The program addresses the overall fraud risk to consumers from the perspective of all products, industries and geographies. This article presents a short overview of the research that is shifting focus from intervention and response to prevention through understanding.

Economically motivated adulteration (EMA)
In May 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration conducted an open meeting on Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA), which covered food, drugs, medical devices, nutritional supplements, veterinary drugs and animal food. This was a natural extension from several high profile incidents and the activity of their internal EMA Working Group. The meeting was a rallying point for the US food industry to begin a focused attack to reduce the risk of food fraud. Among other actions, this push resulted in a Grocery Manufacture’s Association (GMA) January 2010 report on consumer product fraud that covers food fraud. These activities have helped create a starting point for research on food fraud, but the complex nature of the fraud and the fraudsters presents many challenges.

A food industry responsibility?
Historically economic fraud has been the domain of legal entities (e.g. federal law enforcement or customs agencies), but food fraud introduces an interesting twist. When there is a food fraud incident that threatens public health, traditional intervention and response actions are taken to recall and destroy adulterated products. It is the food sector, including both industry and government agencies, that are tasked with responding, even though the motivation for the adulteration is usually economic in nature – and criminal. In the past this potential “dual-ownership” has clouded the food fraud issue. It is becoming more accepted that food fraud should be addressed by food industry and government professionals - even though they may not be criminologists. Simultaneously the food industry must engage law enforcement agencies to obtain their expertise.

Food fraud prevention is also extremely interdisciplinary, relying on support from the supply chain, manufacturing, packaging, procurement, corporate security, food law, public health, consumer behaviour, social anthropology and criminology. Food defense is a conceptually similar food risk, which addresses malicious tampering or attacks. Here criminals – or terrorists – are motivated to create a public health threat. The non-traditional prevention countermeasures for food defense are similar to those required for food fraud (i.e. fraud prevention). The difference is in the motivations: food fraudsters seek personal economic gain while terrorists seek to harm.

There is an additional and growing concern that, because potential contaminants are unusual, food fraud may present a greater risk than traditional food safety, . Food safety threats come from a known set of dangerous pathogens or chemicals. Food fraudsters are not bound by convention or constrained to a set of known adulterants.

The chemistry of the crime
While researching the strategies to prevent food fraud, it became apparent that prevention could only occur if there was an understanding of the basic fraud opportunity. Prevention is not exclusively about detection methods and technologies; iIt is also about understanding the fraudsters and the types of fraud via behavioural sciences including criminology. By understanding the basic criminal nature of the fraudsters and their fraud capabilities we can begin to assess food industry vulnerabilities. As in food defense we may not have evidence that a system or product may have been attacked, but we can still assess and mitigate food fraud risk.

For over 30 years the field of criminology has focused on the environment in which a crime occurs. Specifically situational crime prevention studies how to change the environment to reduce the attractiveness of a crime (i.e. reducing the benefit for the criminal or increasing his risk). These concepts are directly applicable to food fraud.

The crime triangle is a concept that deconstructs the fraud opportunity into three legs of a triangle with the bound area within the triangle as the fraud opportunity [Figure 2]. The three legs are:

• Victim: consumer, brand owner or government who is cheated from taxes;
• Fraudster: there are a near infinite number of them covering a wide range of capacity and technical capability;
• Absence of a capable guardian or hurdle: these are organisations or countermeasures that help to detect and deter the fraudsters.

The victim side will grow as a brand’s volume and recognition grows. The fraudster side is consistent (perhaps growing due to globalisation). Manipulating the guardian and hurdle side is the most efficient and effective means for companies to impact on the food fraud opportunity.
Once companies understand the details of their own crime triangle, they can begin to understand food fraud opportunities that could be perpetrated by specific types of fraudsters. This framework can help evaluate how effective specific types of countermeasures will be in detecting or deterring the specific fraudsters. After considering these details, general countermeasures can be selected to reduce the opportunity for food fraud. The strategic goal is to disrupt the chemistry of the crime, reduce the fraud opportunity, and decrease the risks to public health.

What’s next?
Currently, there are food fraud-related initiatives underway in ISO and at the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)/ Food Chemicals Codex. The ISO Technical Committee 247 Fraud Controls and Countermeasures addresses all product fraud and is intended to support current food regulations or standards. This includes a role as a liaison to other ISO work, which could include ISO 22000 Food Safety and ISO 28000 Supply Chain Security. While not a defined series of steps, these standards are helpful in establishing management practices. The USP’s Food Chemicals Codex has an expert panel convened on Food Ingredient Intentional Adulteration. A new expert panel is being developed for Economically Motivated Adulteration of all USP products. These US national and international standards activities are intended to support the overall understanding of the risk and to support the reduction of fraud opportunity.

Detection actions such as the monitoring of all imported products is not practical. Monitoring all international food manufacturing is also not practical. A more effective strategy is to focus on prevention such as the “chemistry of the crime,” the root motivations, and the risks.

Food safety, food defense, and food fraud issues can all create food adulteration risks. Regardless of the cause of the food risk, adulteration of food is a “food issue”. The objective of economically motivated adulteration is financial gain, but the food public health risks are probably more risky than traditional food safety threats because the contaminants are unusual and we are not specifically looking for them. Food fraud is a concept that is growing in importance for the food industry and the government agencies that oversee the food supply.

The authors
John Spink, PhD
Associate Director & Assistant Professor of the Anti-Counterfeit and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP),
School of Criminal Justice,
Michigan State University, USA.
Douglas C. Moyer, MS, CPP
Lead instructor counterfeit pharmaceuticals,
School of Public Health,
College of Human Medicine,
Michigan State University, USA
Correspondence to
Tel: +1-517-884-0520


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