The trend toward more transparency in ingredient sourcing has been steadily rising, particularly since the Europe-wide horse meat scandal of five years ago. In 2013, many consumers were horrified to learn that popular beef products contained up to 100% horse meat, and that manufacturers weren’t quite sure where it came from. The episode shook confidence in supply chains and (temporarily) shifted consumer demand away from red meat, and market research organisation Mintel has identified transparency as one of the watchwords for 2018, in its European Consumer Trends Report.
European food companies are required to be able to identify one step forward and one step back in the supply chain – that is, where their raw materials have come from and where they are going – but food scandals have revealed the enormous complexity of food networks, and led some to question whether current requirements go far enough to prevent fraud.
One of the difficulties of verifying the authenticity of foods and drinks is that looking for specific contaminants is not enough. In the case of horse meat in beef products, for example, the UK’s Food Standards Agency asked food companies to test beef products for horse DNA, but this approach left manufacturers one step behind those responsible for the adulteration. Unscrupulous individuals aiming to sell cheaper products that masquerade as beef will move on to another cheap protein in the future, perhaps boosting beef with turkey, for instance.
That is why a major tactic for food fraud prevention has been to fingerprint authentic products. US Pharmacopeia publishes the Food Chemicals Codex, which gives fingerprints of more than a thousand food ingredients that act as reference points for industry. The idea is to compare what an ingredient should look like to the product in question, rather than hunting for a possible contaminant.
Blockchain technology for ingredient analysis
Analysis firms like Campden BRI also have encouraged food companies to identify the ingredients that are most vulnerable to fraud and have these scrutinised, minimising their risk of buying fraudulent raw materials. Generally, the ingredients considered most at risk of contamination are those that are relatively expensive or have constrained supply, meaning fraudsters have more to gain by transplanting them with cheaper alternatives.
According to a report from the European Parliament, the most common targets for food fraud in Europe are olive oil, fish, organic foods, honey and maple syrup, milk, grains, spices like saffron and chilli powder, wine, coffee, tea, and certain fruit juices.
While keeping tabs on ingredients can be as simple as recording batch codes, computerised tracking systems using barcodes, RFID and QR codes have become more common. Increasingly digitised supply chains could not have come at a better time for the food industry, as food networks have become more fragmented and decentralised.
Blockchain technology in particular has real potential, not just for preventing fraud, but also for ensuring food ingredients are what they purport to be in other ways too, such as organic or Fair Trade, sustainable, and safe.
How does blockchain work?
Essentially, blockchain creates a permanent digital record of food ingredients that everyone in a supply chain can access, and no one party can edit without the authorisation of every other participant. Each time a shipment changes hands, it becomes a block of information and these blocks add together to create a detailed picture of the supply chain from seed, farm or fishery to consumer. The technology is still in its infancy in the food industry, but could help centralise and democratise information about how food is sourced and handled.
When it comes to identifying fraudulent ingredients in the supply chain, such digital tracing systems could help shorten the search from the days or weeks it currently takes, to just minutes.