The 2013 horse meat scandal has put the issue of food fraud under the spotlight. The revision of the EU control regulations, adopted in March 2017, now places more emphasis on the control of fraudulent practices.
At the "Food Fraud Congress", held on 12 and 13 June 2017 in Berlin, some 180 participants representing public authorities, business and the science community centred their discussions around the revision of the EU Officials Controls, focussing on how the authorities could tackle its implications on combating food fraud, its effects on the economy and its analytical requirements.
The event was organised by the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) and European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) on strategies to combat food fraud.
"Food fraud is certainly a very ancient type of crime. However, the 2013 horse meat scandal made us realise the extent to which global trade flows can be used to commit food fraud", stated BVL President, Helmut Tschiersky in his opening speech.
Dr Elke Anklam, Director at the JRC, highlighted that several measures had been taken at the EU level in the last two decades to ensure food safety, among others the establishment of reference laboratories.
A renewed focus is currently set on tackling food fraud to meet consumers' expectations of ensuring that the food they buy complies with the claims made on the food labels.
Networks as the key to success
Addressing the event, Dr Maria Flachsbarth, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) said: "A well-structured cooperation at national and European level forms the basis for a successful strategy in combating food fraud."
She also underscored the role of the BVL as coordinator in Germany. Following the establishment of a national system for combating food fraud, the BVL faces a complex challenge, noted Gerd Fricke, the department head in charge of food safety at the BVL.
In addition to the exchange of information, the focus here is on network formation in order to create the foundations for effective actions.
Dr Gudrun Gallhoff of the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) of the European Commission observed that the framework established in the EU could only serve as a hinge because of the different structures in the EU countries.
She also highlighted the work of the DG SANTE operated Food Fraud Network, which has led to concrete results in the fight against food fraud at EU level.
The revision of the EU control regulation also takes into account the fight against fraudulent manipulations, as highlighted by Dr. Michael Winter (BMEL). In this way, the risk-based control frequency will also be used to gain insight into the likelihood of fraudulent or misleading practices.
Dr Peter Wallner, head of the special Food Security Unit (FSU) at the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (LGL) supported the approach.
In monitoring the enforcement of the new regulation, it is also important to include the general economic conditions for food production in the risk assessment. An early warning system developed by the Bavarian FSU allows detecting significant changes in the flow of goods or food prices, which can potentially signal increased fraud risks.
For this reason, BVL and LGL are striving to strengthen their collaboration. In enforcing the legal framework, Dr Wallner advocated for a stronger cooperation with the public prosecutors because frequently the special unit is consulted by the public prosecution office.
Protection for Whistleblowers is insufficient
Dr Wanja Welke and Dr Anja Wüst (German prosecutors) outlined the significance of criminal law in the fight against food fraud.
"Criminal sanctions can be part of combating food scandals," said Dr Welke, "and they should be". In particularly serious cases, imprisonment of six months to ten years is possible.
The decisive factor is determining whether the criminal offence of the fraud was fulfilled (section 263 of the Criminal Code) or merely rules on food law were infringed. "It is a pleasure for us to see that the amended control regulations now focus on food fraud," explained Dr Wilt.
Annegret Falter, chairman of the association Whistleblower-Netzwerk e.v. (Whistleblower Network), requested legal protection for whistleblowers. The food controlling authorities depend on information provided by whistleblowers but, at the same time, the whistleblowers are not adequately protected.
For Professor Alfred Hagen Meyer (lawyer), the greatest potential to prevent food fraud lies with the food companies themselves.
"Only they, as an integral part of the food chain, could effectively counter food fraud", he said. However, their quality management systems would not be sufficiently developed in this field.
Improve research results accessibility
"The new control regulation comprises additional requirements also for analyses purposes", Dr Petra Gowik, Head of Laboratory Operations at BVL, commented on the new cascade system. It was revealed that if no analytical methods were established by EU law in the future, standardised international procedures or EU reference laboratories procedures would be used.
If these were also not available, national procedures would come into place. Combining the multitude of existing research findings on food safety and integrity in the food chain and making them accessible is a challenge.
To improve the Knowledge Management in the field, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has set up a National Reference Centre for the Authenticity and Integrity of the Food Chain at the Max Rubner Institute (MRI).
Dr Lara Frommherz of the MRI underpinned how the existing facilities of the MRI in the new National Reference Centre could be mobilised. Among other things, she elaborated on how the MRI could also produce reference materials.
The difficulty for the laboratories, as highlighted by all the speakers, was to get authentic samples.
In his concluding remarks, the BVL President, Dr Tschiersky gave a brief résumé of the major outcomes of the Congress, noting that ensuring improved protection of whistleblowers is a pending task and strengthening the cooperation between the control authorities and the economic operators is another.
For the expansion of the existing networks, he pled: "We should create many new horizontal links instead of extra vertical ones."
The Food Fraud Congress was jointly organised by the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC).
The BVL is an independent federal authority in the business area of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) and its primary focus is on consumers' health protection.
For example, the BVL coordinates the supervisory programs for food, feed and commodities, carried out by the Länder and is a national contact point for the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed of the European Union (RASFF).
In the event of a crisis, a location centre can be set up in the BVL and the Federal and State Task Force "Food and Feed Safety" can be convened.
The JRC, as a scientific organisation of the European Commission, supports European policy through evidence-based independent advice.
Information about the Symposium (in German/BVL web site)
Contents of the presentations (in German/BVL web site)
Exploring new ways to combat food fraud (in German/BVL web site)
- 22 Juni 2017