Fortress fights the food fakers

By: Phil Brown, Managing Director, Fortress Technology Europe.

Food fraud costs the industry around EUR 30 billion a year globally. With the number of cooperation requests by the EU Food Fraud Network jumping 30 percent in 2018, counterfeiters continue to pose a major threat to food innovation and consequently economic growth. 

European Managing Director of Fortress Technology Phil Brown explores the different red flags that suppliers and manufacturers can look for in order to maintain product integrity.

Metal detectors and inspection systems are critical to the food production process. For many suppliers, metal detection is mandated by various schemes, including BRC, SQF and GFSI. Nowadays, few genuine food producers operate lines without at least one contaminant inspection check on a production line.

Given the complex, often fragmented, nature of global food production chains, all serving cost focused consumers, falling victim to counterfeiters has become more prolific.  “There are numerous deterrents, including a legal EU framework. Yet, supply volatility and sudden price fluctuations could push manufacturers, unwittingly or not, towards a potential scandal,” cautions Phil. 

Tackling trafficking 

Last year, OPSON, the global annual operation coordinated by Europol and INTERPOL, dismantled nearly 50 criminal networks linked to the trafficking of substandard and counterfeit food and drink. Just last month, 150,000 litres of fake olive oil destined for Germany and Italian markets, was seized. Twenty individuals were arrested. The successful operation was carried out under the OPSON framework, and involved representatives from the Italian and German authorities¹.

Global legislation introduced at the start of 2019 has also started to focus more on border control and imports. For example, the US Food & Drug Administration recently announced new plans and a multi-layered, data-driven safety net, to limit risks2. Its aim is to ensure imported foods meet the same safety standard as US domestically-produced foods, and will focus efforts and border screening for countries deemed a higher import risk.  Yet, while the FDA enforces the rules, food manufacturers themselves are accountable for implementing systems that will prevent, minimise or eliminate what they class as being economically motivated adulteration. Activities of this nature in the EU are monitored, reported and shared through the EU Food Fraud Network.  

While inspection systems are great at identifying contaminants during the manufacturing process, rejecting products and providing a traceable farm to fork audit trail, fraud itself can be inherently harder to spot. “For food manufacturers, responsible sourcing is the key to mitigating food fraud risks in the supply chain. There are tools that can help with this, including data analysis, sensor technology and DNA sequencing,” adds Phil. 

Red flags

Food fraud can often be identified at the early stages with low-level non-compliance. Knowing that a supplier has invested in a respected food safety inspection system and has the data to back it up can be a deterrent for smaller-scale fraudsters. If a supplier is not willing to share details of their inspection system or participate in a risk assessment audit that should provide an instant red flag alert.

Requesting access to a traceable data system reports, can be another deterrent. Manual records are more vulnerable as it’s easier for someone to alter and modify them. It’s why Fortress developed CONTACT Reporter. An automated record keeper, CONTACT Reporter it helps processors keep track of and record logs for rejects, tests, settings etc.

Labelling laws

Recent food scares, including the horsemeat scandal of 2013, has pushed labelling higher up the agenda for regulatory bodies. EU mandatory obligations already require labels to specify the origin of specific food items, including honey, olive oil and most unprocessed meats. Nevertheless, the authenticity of these labels are only effective if all the information can be verified and isn’t misleading.

Solutions like SparcEye - a fully integrated weighing and labelling solution - can assist food producers to comply with the latest packaging and labelling Codes of Practice. Sparc’s extensive label verification technologies adds another layer of control to supply chains.

SparcEye can check up to 200 packs per minute (depending on product dimensions). It works by automatically inspecting the on-pack information, such as the date code, the 1D or 2D barcode, label/product ID and any over-printed data, making sure all this information is correct and matches the barcode and label ID held in a database.  SparcEye can be integrated with a Fortress metal detector and the date coder programs, to ensure every run is set up and operating correctly.  

Product tampering

Replacing high value food items with cheap substitutes or adulterating products is a key target for fraudsters. Organic produce, premium herbs, seafood, Parmesan cheese, honey and coffee are listed by Europol as the most commonly tampered food products.  

If the quality of high value foods is being compromised, installing a metal detector designed for low profile products can help to determine if ultra thin metals are present. Fortress’ most recent innovation - the Interceptor DF (Divergent Field) - uses multiple fields to inspect products as they pass through the detector. This increases the probability of finding a small swarf, shaving, or flake of metal, regardless of the orientation.

Metal detectors can also address the issue of intentional sabotage. Farmers, to restore consumer confidence following a spate of high profile cases, have since introduced customised Fortress bulk metal detectors. 

Counteracting the counterfeiters

For foods, it’s easy to be hoodwinked by something that resembles the real thing. Fraud is ultimately an opportunistic action. And when profit margins are being squeezed, it’s tempting to seek cheaper materials or ingredients.

Phil ends: “Food manufacturers can counteract this by ensuring they and their suppliers implement robust inspection measures. Products that have been tampered will inherently be of poorer quality. When corners are being cut, contaminants, metal included, are more likely to be present. So, while metal detection and inspection equipment might not spot fake foods, they can act as a very strong deterrent across the entire purchasing chain.” 

[1] https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/fsma/ucm361902.htm

[2] https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/150-000-litres-of-fake-extra-virgin-olive-oil-seized-‘well-oiled’-gang

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