Food fraud is defined as the act of intentionally changing, mislabelling, replacing, or messing up with the composition of food items at any point during the production and processing stages. The most recent case of food fraud is the horsemeat scandal that took place in Europe in 2013 (Elliott 2014). The effects of the scandal prompted the establishment of a committee to look into the issue and propose measures to prevent the recurrence of the incident.
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The purpose of this paper is to critique Professor Elliott’s review of the horsemeat scandal. Two main pillars recommended by the professor are examined and discussed further. The paper also highlights how the pillar can work in a systems approach. Further recommendations regarding the implementation of these pillars by local governments, regulators, and industry are also suggested.
Background of the Events Leading to the Commissioning of the Review
On the 15th of January 2013, it was discovered that food items promoted in some sections of Europe as containing beef had horsemeat that had not been declared on the labels (Agnoli et al. 2016). The proportions of horsemeat were as high as 100% of the total meat composition in certain instances. Frozen meat burgers containing traces of horsemeat were being sold in supermarkets in parts of Britain and Ireland. Another revelation was that some products contained undeclared meats such as pork whose consumption is taboo in some religions such as Islam and Jewish.
As much as the availability of the undeclared meat did not pose a real health problem, the scandal brought to light major issues in the traceability of the food supply chain. This revelation indicated a high likelihood of the inclusion of hazardous chemicals. For instance, horses bred for sports are often treated with phenylbutazone, which is a banned chemical in the rearing of animals meant for food (Annunziata et al. 2018).
Consequently, this toxic chemical could have entered the food chain. The scandal was disseminated to about 13 other European countries, which underscored the need to assay 4000 horsemeat samples for the banned substance (Elliott 2014). These events also prompted the commissioning of the Elliott review by the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Health in a bid to review the veracity and guarantee of food supply networks.
The Rationale for Professor Elliott’s Recommendation of the Two Pillars
The chosen two pillars out of the eight recommended by Professor Elliott are zero tolerance and laboratory services. The following subsections expand the two pillars and explain why they were chosen over other tenets. Gaps and opportunities to expand the two pillars are also indicated.
Zero tolerance refers to a strategy where flouting stated rules attract strict punishment. The purpose of this policy is to get rid of undesirable behavior. Food fraud is a form of crime as much as it may appear harmless in some instances. Therefore, enforcing a zero-tolerance policy by imposing punitive measures can go a long way in discouraging this behavior. This pillar is more important than other pillars because it is likely to deter potential food fraudsters if they know that their actions will lead to big repercussions on their part.
The theory of reasoned action is a valuable evidence-based premise that supports this pillar. This theory strives to elucidate the association between attitudes and mannerisms that influence human action (Yzer 2017). The premise forecasts human behavior based on established attitudes and intentions. In essence, an individual’s decision to take part in a particular activity is influenced by the potential outcomes of the action. Therefore, people are likely to engage in activities that they know will result in positive consequences and desist from activities that lead to negative repercussions.
Specific measures that the government can take to support this pillar include encouraging the food business to question unrealistic transactions, supporting a culture of whistleblowing and exposure of fraudsters, encouraging sampling and testing of food at various levels within the supply chain, and adopting motivation machinery to remunerate upright procurement processes (Manning 2016).
Other measures include educating regulators on the appropriate strategies for identifying and combating food crime, creating awareness about public sector purchasing agreements, especially the authentication of food supply chains, and incorporating food fraud and alleviation strategies in business risk inventories.
However, certain gaps exist concerning this pillar. For example, even if zero-tolerance policies exist for food fraud, a few unscrupulous traders may continue with the vice knowing very well the likely consequences for their actions. Therefore, there is a need to conduct additional research to develop ways of addressing this eventuality. A second gap is the lack of standardized food prices that can serve as useful indicators of potential fraud. Fraud can be suspected if a certain food item is sold for a lower than usual price. However, in the absence of prior knowledge of expected food prices, such an anomaly can go undetected.
An existent opportunity is imposing temporary or permanent bans on firms, manufacturers and farmers found guilty of food fraud. Temporary bans can range from a few months to several years, depending on the gravity of the food fraud committed. To ensure that appropriate actions are taken following a whistle-blowing endeavor, a clear communication channel or protocol should be established regarding the next course of action.
It is impossible to detect food fraud by merely looking at an item or comparing the prices of original and counterfeit commodities. In some cases, the prices of counterfeit food may even be higher than the normal cost for the incident to be considered food fraud. Therefore, there is a need for well-established laboratory services to facilitate the detection of food fraud using tangible evidence. These facilities should also use authorized and harmonized techniques.
In the horsemeat scandal, it was noted that most laboratories in Britain and Ireland did not have adequate capacity to test the 4,000 samples for authentication. Consequently, many samples had to be taken to Germany for laboratory analysis. Professor Elliott reported that the number of expert laboratories in analytical procedures in the food industry had shrunk from 50 to 6 over two decades due to the downscaling of local authorities’ budgets (Elliott 2014).
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This pillar is important because, in the absence of concrete, stable ways of identifying food fraud, the fight against this vice is futile. The identification of food fraud may not be a straightforward process in some instances, for example, ascertaining the geographical traceability of a food item or identifying the production system used. Such cases require expertise to combine analytical data and chemometrics to segregate food items based on these variables.
Elliott (2014) recommended that the government ought to find ways of standardizing analytical methods used in laboratories that test for food authenticity in the community. The issue of standardization is crucial because different analytical methods have varying levels of sensitivity and accuracy as determined by their limits of detection (Konieczka & Namiesnik 2016). Using standardized approaches can help to eliminate disparities in analytical findings to facilitate unbiased decision making. Harmonization can be achieved by collaborating with interested organizations to develop centers of excellence.
Moreover, there is a need to develop uniform guidelines to inform national sampling programs. Sampling plays a crucial role in determining the accuracy and reliability of outcomes due to an ununiform distribution of substances under investigation. Therefore, poor sampling techniques will lead to the testing of samples that are not true representations of the population, thereby resulting in inaccurate conclusions (Crowder 2017). Additional discrepancies from one food surveillance and testing agency to another can be avoided through partnership and frequent comparisons and streamlining of food inspection.
A gap that remains to be filled regarding this pillar is the standardization of analytical methods for detecting food fraud. Recent advances in technology have led to the development of many techniques. Gold standards for specific analyses should be established based on their accuracy, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.
The establishment of fully-equipped laboratories without adequate manpower cannot solve the problem of food fraud. Thus, an unexplored opportunity in this area involves recruiting competent food scientists or technologists and training them in the current, evidence-based techniques for detecting various forms of food fraud.
The Implementation of the Pillars
Current experience and evidence show that these two pillars have been implemented adequately by the industry and government. Following Professor Elliott’s review, there have been notable changes in attitudes within the food industry. For example, there has been increased incorporation of testing and surveillance systems into regular industrial practices (Brooks et al. 2017). Furthermore, the establishment of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) indicates government preparedness to handle potential cases of food deceit through the zero-tolerance pillar (Jones, Hillier & Comfort, 2017).
Even though extensive research has been conducted to develop and improve various analytical techniques to monitor food fraud, the implementation of these recommendations in all areas of the food chain has not been done effectively throughout Europe. For example, Romania remains susceptible to food fraud cases in certain areas of the supply chain, which can easily lead to the dissemination of substandard food items to other parts of Europe (Stanciu & Bichescu 2018). This observation is an indication that gaps exist in the implementation of these pillars. Therefore, there is a need for additional partnerships between industry and government to support the endorsements fully.
How the Pillars would Work in a Systems Approach
The systems theory suggests that organizations are made up of different smaller units that must operate effectively to lead to the overall efficiency of the institution (Clayton & Radcliffe 2018). Considering the food industry as a system whose main subsystems are the two pillars of laboratory services and a zero-tolerance policy, it is possible to fight food deception.
The two pillars can work hand in hand to fight food deceit by making use of laboratory services to test and identify food items that contravene food safety regulations by engaging in fraudulent activities. The traders involved in these malpractices can then be punished through the zero-tolerance policy for food dishonesty. This way, the issue can be addressed adequately within the food industry because the two pillars will create a self-sustaining system concerning ensuring food safety as honesty.
Further Recommendations for Government, Regulators, and Industry
Additional recommendations that can be made for government, regulators, and industry include looking at the potential for fraud in various food items and detecting it early enough. For example, Professor Elliott suggests that crop failure in specific crops is a good starting point to investigate food fraud because producers, manufacturers, and retailers can exploit such natural losses to defraud the public. Therefore, these entities should be vigilant and conduct laboratory investigations in instances involving food items that have experienced crop failure. Furthermore, it is worth noting that all parts of the food chain are vulnerable to food fraud and should be checked thoroughly through rigorous testing.
Vulnerability increases with the number of times a commodity changes hands during the supply chain, particularly during storage and transportation (Van Ruth, Huisman & Luning 2017). Additionally, reliance on paper-based trails should be avoided because such systems are prone to interference and are likely to fail. Blockchain technology where a digital signature is added to the documentation each time a consignment changes hands is likely to minimize food fraud and can be adopted.
Food fraud is a rampant problem in the food sector. The horsemeat scandal was an eye-opening experience that shed light on the vulnerability of the food industry to manipulation and defrauding, which could have adverse health outcomes for consumers. Elliott’s review proposes eight pillars to combat food fraud out of which the two tenets of the zero-tolerance policy and laboratory testing stand out most. Addressing the specific recommendations concerning these pillars can reduce the incidence of food fraud.
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