The horsemeat scandal of two years ago put food fraud into the news headlines. Jonathan Spencer explains this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Food fraud – the adulteration of food – is commonly the result of a shortage of supply, or a sudden increase in the cost of raw ingredients. Meanwhile consumer demand remains constant. One common response is to stretch the raw ingredient by adding something else.
Cumin powder is a case in point. In January 2015 the trade magazine ‘The Grocer’ reported that the Indian cumin crop was late because this year’s sowing had been delayed by extreme weather conditions. The prediction is that the area of planted cumin will be 30% less this year compared to 2014 and that there was a 5% price increase year on year in January 2015.
Unsurprisingly by February 2015 there were various reports of adulterated cumin powder and by the end of February the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) had issued a food allergy alert. This noted that cumin and also paprika were adulterated with traces of almonds. This adulteration is considered potentially serious for those with nut allergies. How this adulteration occurred is unclear, but official accounts infer it might be criminal.
Cumin is one of many foods adulterated in recent times. Food fraud was evident in the ‘horsemeat’ incident in 2013, where beef was stretched with horsemeat. Melamine was added to formula baby milk in China to increase the protein content. Diethylene glycol was put into Austrian white wine in the 1980s to mask the taste of sugar that had been added to the wine to make it palatable. Both melamine and diethylene glycol are poisonous.
As each of the ‘scandals’ was revealed, so politicians made promises of increased vigilance and testing to protect the consumer and ensure the authenticity of food. The assurance of provenance is a major driver in the food industry of efforts to insure against any future ‘scandal’ that might result in reputational damage.
But what we are witnessing is a process of distancing from the epicentre of the problem. The focus on food fraud and the setting-up of a food crime unit within the FSA have some merits, but at the same time this shapes the problem of food adulteration as being one that is the activity of criminals. The constructed concept of the criminal is that ageless one of the threat from outside. In many cases when the criminality is viewed as being ‘organised’, the criminal is from across the border. This approach does little to enhance our understanding of food fraud and fails to apply insights from criminology.
The first indications from our research into food fraud indicate that to understand the stresses and tensions within food supply chains, and how these can lead to opportunities for criminal action, we need an in-depth understanding of how the food market operates. This should come as no surprise, as much of the research into how serious crimes are organised begins by asking questions about the nature and organisation of illicit markets.
It is understanding the constraints and opportunities of the market that allows for the application of criminological perspectives on how offenders may develop networks to exploit opportunities for criminal action. This can include analysing the routine daily activities of those operating in vulnerable markets. One question considered is what is it about their legitimate occupations that provide opportunities to behave deviantly? The networks of actors within the supply chain needs to be examined. How do participants who are central to potential food adulteration interact, co-operate and collaborate?
Once these questions are asked and answered, we can better understand how opportunities for fraud arise within the food supply system and how criminally inclined networks of participants accomplish their fraudulent goals. We can also discover what it is that ‘likely offenders’ need to do together to make the offence happen and how they invest in the criminal action. This theoretical framework allows us to understand the process of criminal action within a number of different contexts. So, a more detailed understanding of the contexts of criminal action provides us with a means of locating the points of vulnerability to crime within food supply chains and food markets.
Within the food supply chain we need to have a sophisticated understanding of how the market is structured. We know something of the power of retailers in determining the shape of contracts and the strategies utilised to protect their own interests, but we do not, as yet, have a full understanding of how the different elements of the food supply markets interact to create the conditions for offending.
There are a number of reasons for our lack of knowledge of the markets. First is the reluctance of retailers to share their knowledge, or what might be termed a desire to keep market activity obscured. Second, there is a lack of motivation by regulators to explore market activity and dynamics. Instead they tend to start from the point of criminal action undertaken by dedicated criminals, rather than examine those with a legitimate role in the market who may exploit opportunities for criminal gain.
If we are serious about delivering authentic and safe food then we need a policy engagement that negotiates a more open and transparent set of market interactions. Lives may depend on us getting this right.