Fighting Food Fraud with Existing Technology
Counterfeiting is a growing problem across the globe, spurred in part by the explosion of the digital marketplace. Thanks to the internet, anyone can set up a shop as a ‘legitimate’ salesperson, offering anything for sale without much in the way of regulation.
BASCAP (Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy) and INTA (International Trademark Association) estimate that the value of trade in counterfeit and pirated goods could reach $991 Billion by 2022. It also predicts net job losses of 4.2 to 5.4 million by 2022 as a direct result of counterfeiting activities displacing legitimate business.
Food fraud is not quite the same as counterfeiting money or drugs. Nobody is sitting in a dark room painting a bit of wood to look like a strawberry they hope to pass off as a real one, after all. However, it does mean that sub-standard, untraceable products, which can contain anything from biological hazards to physical contaminants, are entering the food chain. As a result, the consequences of ‘fake food’ are far-reaching, impacting on consumer health and brand reputations as well as costing legitimate manufacturers and retailers millions of dollars in lost revenue.
The European Union has been particularly concerned with fighting the counterfeiters – in 2017, a joint operation between Europol and INTERPOL seized 9,800 tons of counterfeit food, 26.4 million liters of counterfeit beverages and 13 million other food items. Finding counterfeit goods once they have hit the market is all well and good, but there is little that can be done currently to quickly verify the authenticity of a given shipment’s contents and prevent dodgy goods entering the retail supply chain.
Counterfeiting is not only a challenge for the food industry, of course. The pharmaceutical industry has been on the cutting edge of combating counterfeiting for years – and the technology developed in this sector is eminently transferable to the food production industry.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers use serialization technology, in concert with a wider Track & Trace program, to follow their products through every step of the supply chain. At any point, a complete history of the product’s movements can be generated by scanning a unique serial number (usually encoded as a 1d or 2d barcode). By aggregating the contents of a sealed shipping case, it becomes even easier to pull that movement history. Rather than individually scanning each item in a case, the distributor need only verify that the case has not been tampered with and scan a single code.
While the costs of implementing such a program in the food industry are significant, the additional security – and protection against counterfeiting – makes the investment worth it. In fact, some high-end manufacturers are already using the technology. Caviar producers have been using a universal labeling system for years, which not only ensures the authenticity of the caviar, but proves the caviar was obtained legally. This has gone a long way toward both maintaining sustainability and ensuring consumers are not buying counterfeit goods. It is not too much of a stretch to take that same structure and apply it to spices, or olive oil – or wine, where counterfeiting is an enormous issue.
Food fraud is not a problem that can be solved overnight – it is far too lucrative for the criminals at present – but the implementation of Track & Trace technology throughout the supply chain can go a long way toward making counterfeiting far less attractive. In concert with law enforcement efforts to find and shut down larger counterfeiting organizations, the issue of food fraud will eventually vanish.
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