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Food Fraud – Are you aware of what is being served on your plate, and what you are feeding your body?

Food security has become a major debate in recent times; it is in fact one of the towering problems that the food industry has been battling with for antiquity. Food fraud is a public-health food risk which has become a source of concern for all, and it poses danger for living things. It encompasses deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredient, food packaging or misleading statements about edible items for economic gain.

The biggest disadvantage of food fraud remains the lack of adequate information availed to people about the food they are ingesting, thus creating a fertile ground for the fraudsters.

Types of Food Fraud

Food fraud can be categorized into the following types:

Substitution- This happens when a fraudulent trader adulterates their products to increase profit by mixing cheap low-quality materials.

Tampering- The practice of adding chemicals or dangerous toxins into food items is known as tampering. This can result in serious health hazards for individuals.

Counterfeiting- This type of fraud has witnessed a surge especially after people started resorting to online purchases in the wake of the pandemic. Counterfeiting fraud is best defined as the practice in which products are passed off as another product for economic gain or unethical purposes.

The world is privy to the Spanish Olive Oil Scandal of 1981. In the spring of 1981, a batch of industrial rapeseed oil was illegally contaminated with aniline, a chemical compound used for making dyes and other industrial products. This rapeseed oil was then sold off as ‘olive oil’ to street traders across Spain. This led to the death of about 1000 people from ‘Toxic Oil Syndrome,’ this is a violent allergic reaction that occurs from the consumption of such olive oils. The incident has been deemed as one of the deadliest foodborne disasters in modern history.

In March 2015, an article titled ‘Fake Olive Oil: What You Need to Know (Now)’ started doing the rounds on social media. Conducted by the University of California, the study discovered some astonishing facts. It found that a staggering 69% of all store-bought extra virgin oils in the United States were likely fake. As part of the research, several bottles of olive oil from well-known brands were surveyed at grocery stores, local food markets, restaurants, and other places. To utter chagrin, most of them failed to meet the international standards prescribed for extra virgin olive oil.

In a similar vein, the infamous ‘Horsemeat scandal’ of the United Kingdom still remains one of the most embarrassing moments in the recent years of the food industry in Europe. Better known as the ‘horsemeat saga’, the scandal involved a host of meat processors, supermarkets, government inspectors, and food watchdogs.

Food fraud and scandals related to it appear to be a recurrent thing with the industry, as low-cost production and global distribution are opening the doors to more amoral players. The problem of counterfeited food and beverages is becoming a raging issue. Consumers are unknowingly made to pay for cheap imitations and receive less than they bargained for. Products seized regularly by health regulatory authorities betray the magnitude of the problem since the majority of problematic food products appear to slip through the cracks. The act of tampering with food quality is increasingly jeopardizing the lives of consumers. Although counterfeiting has been a global problem, its prevalence in the food industry is breaking previous records. What is even worse is the fact that counterfeiters are taking advantage of high-tech, customized machinery to give shape to their unethical ventures and produce top-quality imitations, which are extremely difficult to discern from genuine products.

Counterfeiting in the Food Industry can be of Two Kinds

Falsification and adulteration: Here, products are made with substances that differ in quality and quantity from those that are usually found in the particular products that are modified by substituting, removing conventional ingredients or using new ones in place of it. This leads to tampering with the very nature and quality of the product.

Falsification of a brand protected geographical indication, or denomination of origin: This refers to false information, either on the food or on its packaging. It also means illegal reproduction of the patent according to which the food is made. For example, a product might have ‘Made in France’ written on it whilst it might have been made in some other country.

Counterfeiting Channels in the Food Industry

Most counterfeiting in the food sector is undertaken through two channels:

The clandestine circuit- This channel is the one where counterfeiting takes place on the street, in the public markets, by mail order, or through e-commerce sites.

The commercial circuit- Stores and retail outlets selling the original products, in which fake products are often placed alongside the authentic ones best describes this channel. This entails higher risks for consumers as they tend to believe that the official status of the store is a guarantee of the product’s authenticity.

Counterfeiting and Food Safety

Counterfeited food is inferior in quality and usually costs much less in comparison with the original – the disastrous impact of such food on stakeholders is insurmountable; it affects food suppliers and processors alike. Top of all, it can cause serious health risks if unidentified substances or hazardous materials are mixed with food ingredients. Although consumers are getting increasingly aware of the risks associated with eating adulterated and counterfeited food, there is still a long way to go.

For most perpetrators of food fraud, the primary goal is economic. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the most critical consequence is public health vulnerability. Whether public health incidents come to light or not, counterfeiting or misbranding increases the potential for harm. Counterfeiting in food is more dangerous than regular food safety hazards because in certain aspects the pollutants are unknown and unusual. Traditionally, the focus of food safety intervention is to find bad bugs, known harmful chemicals, or commonly known items that can cause physical hazards, but counterfeiters are likely to use adulterants that are not listed among those conventional food safety contaminants.

In the absence of a proper regulatory authority to crack down on counterfeited products, food safety is at constant risk and brands need to chalk out solutions that are robust, efficient, and cost-effective.

The Artificial Intelligence Intervention

Technology can be both a boon as well as a brunt – While technological advancement has led to an increase in counterfeiting and made food safety a global crisis, the same technology can be used to mitigate it. One of the best ways to check counterfeits is to label food items with tags that help buyers differentiate between original and fake products. Cypheme manufactures a world-class product that can be largely instrumental for brands in countering the criminal act of counterfeiting.

The Cypheme solution is easy to implement and effective to the T. The company provides algorithm-powered labels that help in sealing a product’s authenticity. These labels are supported by a robust Artificial Intelligence (AI) backed anti-counterfeit technology that verifies the product’s authenticity. What makes these labels truly unique are the fingerprints that can neither be copied nor reproduced. The fingerprinted labels or tags are created using a special ink, giving each one a chemically unique signature, thus the innate counterfeit-proof feature.

The problem of counterfeiting in food products is old, real, persistent, and needs a modern solution like that which Cypheme presents. Thousands of lives can be saved, and a host of scandals can be avoided if brands take the route of technological solution that help people in separating the originals from the fakes.

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