Make some room on your bookshelf. “Food Fraud,” subtitled “A Global Threat with Public Health and Economic Consequences,” is a must-read for everyone from food safety and quality assurance professionals and industry members, to academics and regulatory representatives.
Co-edited by Rosalee S. Hellberg, associate professor in the Food Science Program at Chapman University, Karen Everstine, senior manager of scientific affairs at Decernis, and Steven A. Sklare, president of the Food Safety Academy, the book offers a detailed dive into a subject that touches a number of sectors of the food industry.
Chapters, such as those on fraud in herbs and spices, wine or seafood, are written by experts in those fields, and the knowledge within is organized and easily referenced, something Sklare and his co-editors were keen on accomplishing.
“While I want everybody to read the whole thing, I'm realistic that not everybody's going to,” he says. “But if there's a chapter that specifically applies to them, they'll be able to find it. It starts to give you the tools.”
We caught up with Sklare, who says the book took about two years to put together, to fill us in on why he and his co-editors wanted to release it, why food fraud is important to understand and how COVID-19 plays a role.
Quality Assurance: Why did you feel it was important for this book to come out?
Steven A. Sklare: I had been very interested in food fraud for well over 10 years, layered on top of my interest in food safety. … There’s still a lot of misunderstanding and lack of knowledge within the food industry as to what food fraud is, why it's important and why the industry should be concerned about it — and that it takes a unique set of tools in order to mitigate the vulnerability to it. When I first got to the U.S. Pharmacopeial (USP) [in 2016], the entire first year that I was there I spent explaining to very smart, typically Ph.D,-level VPs of companies that were responsible for food safety and risk, what food fraud was and how it was different from food safety. The most difficult thing was figuring out a way to make it easier for them to ask, “Well, what do I do? How do I deal with it?” Because a lot of people, if they get to a VP level in a major food company and have got a Ph.D., a lot of them have a little trouble admitting that they don't know the answer to something or asking for help.
QA: Where does that lack of knowledge come from? Why does it exist?
SS: The state of knowledge is much better now than it was before. But where it came from is that you have to remember that food fraud is something that is done intentionally, that it's committed by people. The food fraudster is a criminal, whether it's the actual company itself that is intentionally diluting a product to increase their profitability, or it's somebody that's selling ingredients into a supply chain and they're diluting it with something cheaper. They're consciously and intentionally trying to circumvent the safeguards that are in place, so their goal is to not be discovered. If they're successful, then nobody knows that they're doing it. So, a lot of them have been very successful over time.
The other is that, especially at the beginning and even to a degree today, the feeling is that if we've got all these sophisticated food safety management programs in place like HACCP or preventive controls, that that's going to take care of any potential problems. But the fact is that it doesn't, because quite often the food fraud issue may not be a food safety issue. If you've got salt, for example, that's been diluted with road salt, the only food safety program in place that would allow you to detect that would be a testing program. And you're not going to test every ounce of product that you purchase or you produce because it would be too costly to produce anything.
QA: So the big difference between food safety and food fraud is that intentionality?
SS: You have to attach to that “for economic gain,” because you can have the intentional adulteration of food for harm. And that would come under food defense. The food fraudster may end up harming many people, but that wasn't their original goal.
QA: Who is this book for?
SS: It's certainly something that we thought about a great deal when we were putting the book together. And we, the co-editors, were really in agreement that we wanted to have something that was much more than just an academic exercise or an academic reference. We wanted to put something together that would give — whether it was a high-level person or a big food company — an understanding of the basic concepts of food fraud, and then explaining why it is that they need to be concerned about it, whether it's economics, brand protection, consumer protection. … For example, if a company has unknowingly purchased ingredients that have been adulterated either by substituting a cheaper item or diluting an ingredient, and it’s discovered after the product’s out there, then that company is still going to be responsible for recalling it. They may have innocently purchased the ingredient, but they now own it.
QA: You have a note about COVID-19 in the first chapter. The pandemic started while you were already working on the book, but what’s been its impact on food fraud, and why include that note?
SS: Throughout the book, there are many of the chapters that have numerous economic forecasts and projections for the size of a market, say, for example, nonalcoholic ready drinks. They're projecting what the size of the global market will be 10 years from now and using that as part of the way to show how great an incentive there is to commit fraud. … I thought that it was necessary to say to the reader, “Please understand that all these projections, calculations were made prior to the pandemic.”
The other part is that based on our experience, meaning the editors, we saw that there would very clearly be greater opportunities for fraud to be committed during the pandemic. What's interesting about that is that if you if you do a statistical review of what's happened or what's been reported since the pandemic, it will show you that there has been a drop in reported food fraud incidents. Well, we know that there hasn't been a drop in what's actually taking place. And in fact, it's very likely that it's significantly higher. Not only are there increased opportunities, there's greater cover for those that are committing the fraud. One of the keys to mitigating your vulnerability to food fraud is having a very good handle on your supply chain. You know who your suppliers are, knowing what the history is. Well, during the pandemic, there have been numerous companies that have had to make quick emergency-type changes to who their suppliers were. So quite often, those established protocols were not followed. You're now dealing with a supplier that you don't have a 10-year history.
QA: Many chapters focus on fraud in specific food sectors, which other parts of the book will be of interest to readers?
SS: The three editors, we're really focused on trying to present a holistic approach to the problem. But we do have a chapter that's very focused on analytical detection methods, and we do have a chapter that talks about criminology by John W. Spink, who is one of the most recognizable names associated with dealing with food fraud. Even though those may not be areas that an individual in a particular company is focused on, we just want there to be as much available as a resource as possible.