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Food fraud on the rise as production chains grow longer

Over 300 cases of non-compliant labelling and falsified documentation have come to the Food Fraud Network's attention since it was founded in 2013. As food production chains grow longer, deceit about food's origins and content becomes more commonplace.

Keskieurooppalainen pääsiäispöytä.
Longer supply chains leave more room for fraud. Image: AOP

Food production chains are growing increasingly longer, which provides more opportunities for suppliers to commit fraudulent crimes. Finnish authorities come across one incident of suspected misconduct in this area each week. For instance, beef from South America is slaughtered and then sent to Australia to be cut into pieces. From there is transported to a wholesaler in the Netherlands, where it is sold to Finland as Dutch meat. 

"It's a question of scale: the global food industry has grown so huge that the logistics costs of an individual kilo of meat are negligible," says University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute senior planner Marjo Särkkä-Tirkkonen, who is preparing a doctor's thesis on food fraud.  

Like manufacturing a bike

She says today's food industry can be compared to any component-based industry – like bicycle production, for example – where design, assembly and part production take place in a completely decentralized manner, and pieces come from every corner of the planet.

"Food fraud is certainly not a new phenomenon. I recall a newspaper story from the early 1990s that talked about exporting margarine-rich 'butter' from Finland to England," she says. "The only thing that has changed is that the longer delivery chains make it easier for fraudulent activity to occur."

In the wake of a horsemeat scandal in 2013, the EU countries banded together to found the Food Fraud Network to foster cross-border cooperation in addressing the issue. Over 300 cases of food fraud have been investigated by the group since that time, but these are only cases in which fraudulent products are caught crossing EU borders.

There are no clear definitions for food fraud in current legislation, but it generally applies to all food-related attempts to mislead the customer for financial gain. The scale of crimes runs from insufficient or false product labelling to the sale of rotten meat, like recently in Brazil. 

Meat in Salo not what it seems

The last case to gain publicity in Finland took place in March of this year, when the general manager of the meat firm Perniön Liha out of Salo was charged with marketing fraud and endangering health for selling imported meat with the Hyvää Suomesta label depicting a swan, which should designate Finnish origin. The head of the firm claims the mislabelling was an accident.

"I am not aware of any serious cases that could have led to a health risk that have come to light in Finland. Incidents have been quashed before they get to that point," says Särkkä-Tirkkonen.

Efforts to make the delivery chain of food more transparent for consumers are underway in the European Union. A new directive holds that by September 2017 all meat and dairy packaging must show the country of origin for both the processing and food preparation processes. Earlier, this EU rule applied only to fresh meat.

"As a Finn, I think we can rest easy, but it's good to stay alert. Mindful consumers should know to read the labels," Särkkä-Tirkkonen says.

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