EXCERPT – Why Wasn’t Food Fraud Prevention Addressed Years Ago?

If food fraud has probably been around since the beginning of all food commerce, why wasn’t food fraud prevention addressed 10 or 20, or 100 years ago? It took time for business and scholarly research to develop into what we now know as ‘food fraud prevention.’

Following up on our previous blog post about ‘enabling the shift to prevention’ for addressing food fraud or product fraud, a question was that since prevention is so logical, why was it not implemented years ago? Frederick Accum defined ‘the adulteration of foods’ as a specific public health problem in the 1820s. Industry implemented quality management practices between the 1950s and the 1990s. The scholarly criminology research expanded to crime prevention starting in the 1970s. Food safety started HACCP in the 1960s for NASA, and it became law in the early 2000s. The industry financial reporting requirements, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, were enacted in the early 2000s and implemented through the 2010s.

While these various research paths grew over time, they didn’t intersect until 2011, when food fraud was first defined in a scholarly research journal article (see Spink & Moyer, 2011, Defining the Public Health Threat of Food Fraud). In that article was the first time that all these academic disciplines were combined in one place – food safety, quality management, risk management, and criminology. While the food fraud term has been used long before 2011, this was the first research publication on the topic.

Excerpt from Food Fraud Prevention, 2019, Page 65:

Shifting to Prevention: Why Hasn’t This Been Addressed Proactively Before?

The occasional question is that if food fraud has been around since the beginning of recorded history, then why has it not been directly addressed? There is a question of why a government would “allow” product fraud to continue?

Also, if there are so many economic harms to a company, why haven’t they addressed this sooner? The answer is based on the complexity of the crime and the extremely interdisciplinary strategy. […]

Regarding the complexity of the detection of the fraud act, there are two parts to the response to the incidents: detecting the fraud and then prevention countermeasures and control systems. First, there is the detection of the food fraud act. Industry and agencies already have plans to detect contaminants (e.g., regularly occurring, expected “things”). When an incident like melamine in food occurs, it becomes known. If it seems to have a chance of occurring again or in a more harmful way, the adulterant could be categorized in an Early Warning System as a “contaminant.” The reactive systems start to look for that contaminant after being triggered by a public health incident.

For food fraud, there are a nearly infinite number of adulterant-substances. This applies to those known contaminants and can be expected to recur under the same general conditions and in the same way. Also, just because there is a fraud opportunity (e.g., the price of a commodity skyrockets), this does not mean there is always an incident.

The human fraudster is a biological organism that does respond to opportunities. But unlike a microorganism, the human fraudster will not always respond the same way each time to the same stimuli or conditions. The human fraudster is often intelligent, creative, resilient, patient, and often very well-funded. Also, the human fraudster may decide for some reason not to act. Beyond this generalization, the macroeconomic conditions do not always apply to an individual human fraudster. Each human fraudster is like a separate species of microorganism—or at least a single species that has exhibited a nearly infinite number of mutations or adaptations. Each human fraudster has an extremely varied set of characteristics and motivations.

To explain this analogy, consider that E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria are three microorganisms. While most E. coli (the general genus Escherichia) are not only harmless to humans but actually play an important role in gut health, there are pathogenic strains such as E. coli H1N1 that pose a very serious public health threat (CDC 2018). That said, all E. coli will respond to environmental conditions, in essentially the same way, every time (admittedly, there may be some mutations or abnormal individual organisms).

With the human fraudster, the response to the condition is much more individual. For example, a global change in cocoa pricing will have no effect on a fraudster dealing with tea. Also, that global change in cocoa pricing may have no effect on a fraudster selling hot chocolate to a company that has very strong incoming goods quality control tests—the fraudster may decide it is a “rational choice” NOT to try to commit the fraud act (for more, see the Criminology chapters).

To review the question of whether there is a practical and pragmatic response to address food fraud prevention, in response to that, the blame is on academia (including the authors of this book) for not more fully grappling with the challenge sooner. While the academics have been improving detection, and separately growing criminology concepts such as Situational Crime Prevention, there has been a challenge to develop a paradigm-shifting theory that addresses the challenge of integrating a multiple of disciplines. It is very difficult to apply a complex web of disciplines to respond to a complex problem such as food fraud. The food fraud opportunity has continued to grow because of the very nature of the complexity. The bad guys have been able to evolve to exploit even minuscule new guardian and hurdle gaps—there are capable guardians and hurdles but an even more nimble criminal response.

These all are factors that have led to challenges when focusing on the overall Food Fraud Prevention Strategy.

Takeaway Points

  • Holistically addressing food fraud prevention – and all product fraud, for that matter – has evolved and expanded over time to focus on the root causes and create standard operating procedures.
  • Fortunately, the heavy scholarly lifting has been completed, and the overall food fraud prevention concepts are becoming routine good business practices.
  • The next wave of scholars and new company employees will more instinctively know that food fraud prevention is a ‘thing’ and a refined work process. This activity will be just another part of quality management that is common knowledge and universally highly regarded. 
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