Packaging’s role in food fraud prevention

Food fraud is a major challenge worldwide, and it can have a lasting impact on a country from a social as well as an economic standpoint, as professor John Spink from the Food Fraud Initiative (FFI) cited during a presentation at Process Expo. Automation and processes focusing on authentication, traceability, and supply chain optimization help companies and law enforcement find counterfeits.


John Spink is an assistant professor and the director of the Food Fraud Initiative (FFI) at Michigan State University. Image courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE MediaFood fraud is a major challenge worldwide, and it can have a lasting social and economic impact on a country. Companies and law enforcement use automation and processes to improve authentication, traceability, and supply chain optimization to find counterfeits. If contaminated food is released to the public and people get sick from it, the damage can be long-lasting. The United Kingdom's economy almost went into a recession after an outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in 1996. Many people died from the outbreak, and several countries banned meat imports from England as a result of the outbreak.

John Spink, an assistant professor and the director of the Food Fraud Initiative (FFI) at Michigan State University, defined food fraud as any kind of deception used to make money during his presentation, "The Role of Packaging in Food Fraud Prevention," at Process Expo 2015 at McCormick Place. Food fraud isn't just limited to bad food. It also encompasses counterfeit packaging or swapping out one brand of meat for another (such as cow meat for horse meat). Other forms of food fraud include unapproved enhancements, mislabeling, dilution, and theft. By definition, food fraud is intentional.

Spink, who has been involved with food fraud since 2006, has worked with companies and governments to combat food fraud worldwide through a variety of countermeasures and strategies. The FFI focuses on food fraud as well as business risk and enterprise risk management, anti-counterfeit strategies and countermeasures, and outreach.

The FFI has had success promoting its message worldwide—particularly in Europe and China—but the United States has been a challenge.

"We in the U.S. don't understand how important trust in supply is," Spink said. "Worldwide, it is a major concern and can have a major impact on a country's economy." He said that in the United Kingdom, 60% of people list food integrity as a major concern and in China it is over 80%," he said.

Food fraud covers a wide range of subjects such as bad or contaminated food as well as counterfeit packaging, swapping brands of meat for another, unapproved enhancements, mislabeling, dilution, and theft. Courtesy: John Spink, Food Fraud Initiative, MichSpink said that people in other countries have a more personal relationship with the companies that supply their food and that this isn't the case in the U.S. There may be outrage when there is salmonella or an E. coli outbreak, but our short memories and our overall confidence in our product carry on. The events of the meat packing industry as described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle are a long way from our national consciousness.

Spink sees the faith American consumers have in food products as good and bad. On the one hand, it is good that we have faith and trust in our brand products. However, that faith and trust is attractive to people looking to make money. "If your brand is good, your risk gets bigger every minute," Spink said.

One advantage the U.S. has over the rest of the world is most of the food is sent through a supply chain of retailers that control most of the food supply. The major industries like cattle, chicken, and farming industries work to control their quality. Spink cited that fraudsters aim for less regulated industries like the pet food industry. And from time to time, these can be dangerous. 

The role of packaging

Packaging can play a major role in combating food fraud worldwide. The challenge, according to Spink, is that packaging hasn't caught up with counterfeiters. The tide is turning, though, as companies and lawmakers are beginning to realize the role packaging can play in preventing food fraud. Companies are working on designing countermeasures.

The goal is to prevent the fraudsters from knocking off the product, the brand, the company, the industry, or even the country. The latter point is more of an international issue since some of the industries are nationalized.

The countermeasures in place for companies and law enforcement to find counterfeit and fraudulent packaging are focused in authentication, traceability, and supply chain optimization.

Authentication allows inspectors and the consumers to know whether something is real or fake. According to Spink, inspectors can determine authenticity by looking for a particular element such as a hologram and ensuring it acts in a specific way.

Traceability is important because it allows the companies, the suppliers, and the government to monitor where a product has been, where it is going, and if it gets lost; the supply chain can track it down. Packaging comes in handy because they can be supplied with global positioning system (GPS) chips or other localization markings to verify that a product needs to head for one location rather than another.

Transparency, particularly in Europe and China, is vital for companies as governments, law enforcement groups like Interpol, and companies work together to clamp down on food fraud.

Supply chain optimization, Spink said, is critical. He said the Chinese government, in particular, "Is moving mountains to protect the supply chain and protect its integrity." Europe and the United States are no different, and companies have collaborated with one another to ensure that the process isn't tainted. When a devastating leak like the Mad Cow incident occurs, other companies will be affected because the public starts thinking this may not just be limited to one company. 

Keeping up the fight

When dealing with counterfeiters, Spink said it is not so much a question of stopping them as it is staying a step ahead. He talked about the fraud opportunity in one slide, which consists of a triangle with the victim, the fraudster, and the guardian/hurdle gaps on different sides. The role of the guardian/hurdle gaps, Spink said, is to disrupt the chemistry of the crime and make it more difficult for the fraudster to cheat the potential victim.

Fighting food fraud, Spink said, is a constant battle, and no one will know everything. Even Spink, who has spent close to a decade in the trenches on the topic, admits that he doesn't know everything about fraud prevention. The game of chess is a constant one, and the suppliers are always fighting an uphill battle with the fraudsters. No system is foolproof, and Spink says that it is impossible to try. He said the key is to make food fraud so expensive for the fraudsters that it becomes pointless for them to try and make money.

"For a vast majority," he said, "the motivation is economic. If we make it too expensive for them then there's no point."

- Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Food fraud is a constant battle, and there is a constant race between the criminals and those looking to protect products.
  • Packaging can play a key role in thwarting counterfeiters.

Consider this

What current technology can be used to combat food fraud effectively and cut down on potential violations?

ONLINE extra

Learn more about the Food Fraud Institute at: 

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