REVIEW – WTO Webinar Summary from ‘Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud’ – 2022 and 2023

Food fraud prevention is getting a strategic focus from many groups, including the World Trade Organization (WTO). This post reviews the 2022 and 2023 WTO Webinar Series on ‘Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud.’ I presented at both events, and the video links are attached.

World Trade Organization (WTO) – Webinar Series: ‘Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud’

Last month, in May 2024, the World Trade Organization published a report on ‘Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud.’ This report was created after insights from previous presentations in the 2022 and 2023 Trade Dialogues on Food webinar series on “Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud.” I was a panelist at both sessions, and the link (with my presentation times) are below:

  • 2023 – WTO, World Trade Organization, Trade Dialogues on Food webinar series, Annual Agriculture Symposium “Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud,” Session on Food Fraud and Emerging Issues and Future Trends, December 11, 2023
  • 2022 – WTO, World Trade Organization, Trade Dialogues on Food webinar series, Annual Agriculture Symposium “Illicit Trade in Food and Food Fraud,” Session on Food Fraud and Emerging Issues and Future Trends, March 3, 2022

The focus of the WTO webinar series was illicit trade of food (the transfer of goods, especially across country borders), smuggling (illegal transportation across a border), food fraud (the criminal act including IPR counterfeiting), and then expanding to agri-food products (such as seeds, feed, fertilizer, and pesticides).

Summary statement quotes from the WTO report (emphasis added):

  • Illicit trade in the agri-food sector has many forms and manifestations, ranging from economically motivated adulteration, commonly referred to as food fraud, to large-scale smuggling of agricultural products.
  • The World Trade Organization (WTO) stressed the vital role of WTO rules in setting the benchmark for licit trade and, therefore, helping weed out illicit activities.
  • Panelists defined food fraud as the intentional sale of sub-standard food products or ingredients for the purpose of economic gain.
  • Food smuggling is a different phenomenon. In general, it is driven by a disparity between the price of a good at its origin and its destination (with the destination often being a place where the good is prohibited).
  • The problem of illicit trade in food and food fraud is compounded by illegal trade in agrochemicals and pesticides, which are an integral part of conventional agriculture.
  • The panel broke down [food fraud] into the following broad categories (note: separate from smuggling and cross-border trade issues):
    • Dilution of ingredients
    • Substitution of ingredients
    • Concealment of real product content (ex., falsifying allergen content) or of real product origin
    • Inclusion of unapproved enhancements
    • False or misleading labeling and packaging
    • False product expiration dates
    • Counterfeiting, and therefore brand name infringement; and finally
    • Grey market theft and diversion
  • A broader definition of [the problem] could also extend to the illegal slaughter of livestock, the harvesting of food and livestock from protected land, their harvesting from deforested land, illegal and unregulated fishing, and the use of child and illegal migrant labor to produce food.
  • The role and involvement of the private sector and public-private partnerships were key in combatting [the problem]. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) – a partner of SSAFE – had recently published a food fraud vulnerability assessment procedure to help companies mitigate against identified vulnerabilities.
  • A variety of different international legal instruments exist to combat fraud, including new Codex principles on food adulteration that are currently under development. In the end, a “food systems approach” would need to be taken to fraud, with the country context being vital to identifying where precisely to intervene.
  • Panelists were unanimous that the best way to combat [the problem] lies in crime prevention. Governments have finite resources, with prevention leading to a higher return on the dollar (i.e., it was a more cost-effective approach). They stressed that governments could not “test their way out of the problem” since supply chains are long, and governments cannot test for what they do not know exists.

An enterprise such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) can attract a very high level and broad range of participants. Since the focus was on international trade law, The panelists were mostly WTO/ UN/ FAO. I contributed an industry and application perspective with Quincy Lissaur of SSAFE, Jeff Hardy of TRACIT, and Dr Jan Mei Soon of the University of Lanchester (UK). Speakers included:

  • Anabel Gonzalez, Deputy Director General, World Trade Organization (WTO)
  • Maximo Torero, Chief Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
  • Jeffrey Hardy, Director General, Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade (TRACIT)
  • Antonia Marie De Meo, Director, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) (UN)
  • Tarek Sharif, Executive Director of the African Union Mechanism for Police Cooperation (AFRIPOL) (INTERPOL)
  • Moderated by Doaa Abdel-Motaal, Senior Counsellor, WTO Agriculture and Commodities Division (WTO)
  • Marco Musumeci, Program Coordinator, UNICRI (UN)
  • John W Spink, Director, Food Fraud Prevention Academy & Assistant Professor, Michigan State University (MSU)
  • Carmen Bullon, Legal Officer, Development Law Service (FAO)
  • Jan Mei Soon, Senior Lecturer in Food Safety Management, University of Central Lancashire
  • Quincy Lissaur, SSAFE Executive Director (SSAFE)
  • Christiane Wolff, Counsellor, WTO Agriculture and Commodities Division (WTO)
  • Melvin Spreij, Head, WTO, Standards and Trade Development Facility – STDF (WTO)

It was important to participate in this webinar series. In part, it was fascinating to see how food fraud has become of interest and a major focus worldwide. It was vital for me to learn the insights and experiences of the global agencies. Also, it was an excellent opportunity for me to share food fraud prevention research.

Takeaway Points

  • Illicit trade in food and agri-foods – including smuggling, IPR counterfeiting, and food fraud – is a growing focus for global entities such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
  • A key point is that groups such as WTO are asking questions about defining the terms and considering their optimal role for applying their tools (trade rules that define licit/ legal commerce) to not only catch a problem but also increase efficiency by shifting to prevention.
  • It is encouraging that these public-private partnership meetings occur since there is an opportunity to share best practices, such as the shift to prevention and the critical first step of conducting a vulnerability assessment. The problem needs to be defined in detail – reviewing individual incidents – before countermeasures or control systems can be efficiently and effectively selected and implemented.
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