Tackling the Other Pandemic: Food Fraud
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the focus of scientists and politicians for the past 18 months, but not enough is being done to combat another widespread issue with serious health implications: food fraud
Ernest Teye |
It is not scaremongering to suggest that the problem of food fraud has reached pandemic proportions. For those unfamiliar with the topic, food fraud can be defined simply as the intentional adulteration of food (or food ingredients) for economic profit (1). According to PWC’s Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment (2), it is a threat that costs the global food industry between $30 - $40 billion per year. Not only does food fraud have a significant economic impact, but, more concerningly, it has serious health implications for those who ingest adulterated products.
There’s no doubt food fraud is a global issue, but my personal focus is tackling the issue in West Africa and bringing it to the forefront of policymakers’ agendas. I’m on a mission to foster international collaboration between food academics, chemists, engineers, and scientists to tackle the problem head on.
Why West Africa specifically? Firstly, Ghana is my home country and where I have established my career and expertise – I lecture at the University of Cape Coast’s School of Agriculture in Ghana, and I lead the Africa Centre for Food Fraud and Safety. Secondly, the combination of various factors makes the problem of food fraud in West Africa particularly prevalent. Africa imports $35 billion in food annually (3), so communities can be flooded with fraudulent foodstuffs from abroad. The complexity of our global supply chain, inconsistent regulations, lack of robust testing frameworks, and a lack of support from policymakers all serve to amplify the problem. Consequently, the need for innovative and accessible solutions to test food authenticity is vital.
Recent examples of food fraud reported in local and regional media include palm oil laced with banned food colorant Sudan IV, and meat and fish treated with an embalming agent (formalin) to keep it unnaturally fresh. Despite growing reports, awareness of such fraud within the community and its negative effects on human health remains limited. And that leaves the door wide open for dishonest trade, ultimately limiting the right of African consumers to clean, healthy food – instead, exposing them to the risk of illness or even death. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a further spike in food fraud due to panic buying, price inflation, and food shortages. Climate change is also compounding the problem: over 100 million people in Africa are at risk (4). In short, the need to eradicate food fraud grows greater with time.
To provide solutions to the issue of food fraud, I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with researchers from the Institute of Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast (IGFS-QUB) on Agilent-funded research led by Professor Chris Elliott.
We developed a two-tier approach for screening food, specifically rice in this project. Handheld near-infrared spectrometers can scan large numbers of samples in the field, with suspected fraudulent foodstuffs being sent for confirmatory analysis in the laboratory using LC-MS, GC-MS, and ICP-MS. My goal is to use these tried and tested methodologies across West Africa to mitigate food fraud. We’re already looking at the use of portable sensor devices for rapid onsite and non-destructive screening of palm oil, with 15.7 percent of palm oil imported worldwide being delivered to Africa (5).
The opportunity to share our expertise across borders has helped us develop practical, effective long-term solutions to combat food fraud in Africa and across the globe. Together we have hosted workshops that showcase our findings, and in turn revealed how uninformed stakeholders in Africa were about the problem of food fraud. And that led us to establish the Africa Centre for Food Fraud and Safety.
The collaboration between the Africa Centre for Food Fraud and Safety and IGFS-QUB has created an important platform. We have been able to generate awareness and attract talent to combat food fraud in West Africa and beyond. African communities should not be a dumping ground for harmful and fraudulent foodstuffs. Our mission is simple but essential: To make Africa’s food safe.
- EMA, “Food fraud: What does it mean?” Available at: https://bit.ly/3GHwN5Q
- PWC, “The war on food fraud” (2016). Available at: https://pwc.to/3DNS0Jq
- Africa News, “Why is Africa importing $35bn in food annually? - AfDB boss asks” (2017). Available at: https://bit.ly/3yr4fKT
- Al Jazeera, “Over 100 million people in Africa threatened by climate change” (2021). Available at: https://bit.ly/3pT7EOJ
- World’s Top Exports, “Palm Oil Imports by Country” (2021). Available at: https://bit.ly/3IKcQgB