Emerging technologies, including blockchain, RFID tags, and sensors, offer the ability to fight food fraudulent efficiently.
Let’s talk about food fraud, an ongoing issue that needs to be taken very seriously. Again and again, the media are feeding us new upsetting, often stomach-churning revelations about appalling lapses in the global food industry. Sometimes they threaten public health.
About 300,000 children fell sick in 2008 after Chinese dairy manufacturers adulterated infant formulas with the chemical melamine, causing, in many cases, serious kidney damage. Consumer confidence in beef products took a hit in 2013 when authorities in the UK and Ireland discovered several samples that contained different quantities of horse meat.
More recently, Malaysia was shaken by a large-scale, cartel-like criminal practice that, over decades, mislabelled imported pork, horse and kangaroo meat as halal-certified. Several government officials were bribed along the way.
While there’s not always a direct criminal intent, the problem often points to a lack of transparency and product information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that every year, 600 million people worldwide fall ill after the consumption of unsafe food. It shows undeniably that trust in global and local food supply chains is of greatest interest.
Fighting food fraud
Fortunately, today, technology offers a solution. QR codes on product packaging, geolocation and blockchain technology are gaining momentum in the sector, as modern digital tools are no longer out of reach, even in developing countries.
They now allow to closely track foodstuffs “from farm to table,” enhancing credibility, safety, and food security. Furthermore, AI and Machine learning ensures the timely identification of possible intervention before any significant problem gets out of hand.
It should slowly end the different fraudulent practices we are still observing today: Adulteration when one or more components of the product are fake or tampering when a product and package are used fraudulently. There’s fraud by addition, where fake goods are added to the actual one to increase their quantity.
We have product imitations and copycats of the actual product sold to unsuspecting consumers, which can now be tracked down through machine learning and AI tools. Items might also be distributed or sold outside of permitted territories, a practice we call diversion. A large number of actors involved in the production and distribution of food pose a great risk to product safety, threatening supply chain integrity.
From farm to fork
The farm-to-table or farm-to-fork approach started with the idea of simplifying the food chain by establishing a direct line to the producer. Consumers should be able to buy straight from the farm, creating trust and a different type of relationship.
Fraud, nevertheless, can still happen along the way, and this is where technology comes into play. It allows customers to access the data on the product and producer, nutritional values and ingredients, its origin and journey to the point of purchase.
Producers share information, such as third-party-certified tests and lab reports, that support their claims and upload them to distributed ledgers, or blockchains, where they are publicly visible, scrutable, and where they can’t be altered. Geolocation tools track the shipment on its way to the checkout. Temperature sensors and time stamps verify the projected journey through ports and warehouses. Smart contracts will only release the goods to authorised parties.
At the point of sale, consumers can get the full picture by scanning the QR code that verifies from the time of harvesting to the arrival at the market. More accurate data allows buyers to confirm the exact condition of the product, which also helps to reduce wastage.
Can’t stop the tech
Technology is also progressing in the field of quality control. New techniques like DNA barcoding and fingerprinting are analysing food samples to detect the grade of its purity or to check if they have been mixed with lower-grade varieties.
Earlier this year, Yale-NUS researchers found through DNA barcoding that out of 89 seafood samples from restaurants and supermarkets, about one quarter was mislabeled or sold under a different name.
As consumers demand more sustainable and transparent food sourcing and distribution, they will further push to get exactly what they are promised on the package. For the food industry in Asia and the world, this means that they are in for a tech upgrade.
New tools, including blockchain, RFID tags, and sensors, offer the ability to track food in real time. Gone are the days of the paper document, which will forever be associated with inefficiency, bureaucracy and low-grade security. Let’s get serious in fighting food fraud!