With a rapidly changing food landscape, due to the rise of veganism and a greater focus on allergens, it is not surprising that food fraud is at an all time high.
According to NFU Mutual’s latest food fraud report nearly three quarters of people believe there to be an issue with food fraud in the UK. One third also said that they are less trusting of products and retailers than they were five years ago, compared with only nine percent whose trust has increased.
Food fraud refers to the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering with, or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging at some stage of a product’s distribution or production cycle. It also refers to false or misleading statements made about a food or drink product for economic gain.
Professor Chris Elliott, director at the Institute for Global Food Security, warns that the UK should not be complacent when it comes to food fraud. “For several years I have warned that I believe the organic sector to be highly vulnerable to fraud,” he said. “For my efforts, I have been on the receiving end of some fairly negative feedback from some within the organic movement. I see more and more examples of organic fraud happening in various parts of the world and I am concerned this will hit the UK at some point.” Specifically, he warns that there are not sufficient, reliable checks in the organic food supply chain to prevent fraud happening.
Many organic certification schemes would argue that their systems are the most robust in terms of avoiding food fraud and that it is other unregulated terms that consumers should be concerned about.
New trends in supermarkets have seen labels such as ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘handmade’ or ‘natural’ become more popular. On the shelves these products will often command a premium as their flashy packaging and clever marketing imply they are of higher quality than perhaps the stores more basic range, when in fact in many cases they are made in the same factories, using almost identical ingredients.
Artisan bakers and makers of craft beer have been warning that supermarkets or large corporations may be using misleading terms like handmade, artisan and natural to take advantage of the premium people would pay for such products. In fact, these products may often contain the ingredients that are more typical of mass production and are made using industrial processes.
For example, supermarket sourdough bread sales are on the rise. Traditionally made using flour, salt and water, an investigation by Which Magazine in 2018 revealed that the majority of sourdough loaves sold in supermarkets also contained additional ingredients such as; yeast, ascorbic acid and yoghurt and vinegar - which can impact the health of people with diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome who select sourdough precisely because they believe it to be yeast free and low in sugar.
Meat on the supermarket shelves has a long history of food fraud, with imaginary cuddly farm names created by corporates to hide the realities of industrial farming. Even images of farmers on packaging, who simply don't exist have been used. Meat products branded as British with glorious Union Jack flags covering the label, only to find on further inspection the meat might have come from New Zealand, Poland or Argentina, amongst other countries. There are even flippant uses of terms such as 'Grass Fed' giving consumers comfort that they are choosing better farming, unaware that the Defra and Food Standards Agency definition of “grass fed” meat means it's OK for those animals to have 49% of their diet coming from grain! A loophole that supermarkets have been exploiting for years.
There are some that say greater regulation is the answer.
The Consortium of Labelling for the Environment, Animal Welfare and Regenerative Farming (CLEAR) was launched last year at Groundswell, a regenerative agriculture event.
CLEAR chairman, Fidelity Weston said that developing clear, accessible food labels would respond to the public's desire for greater transparency over how food was produced.
Others believe that only by having a closer relationship with where your food has come from gives you the certainty of its true origin and will enable you to make more sustainable choices a reality.
Laura Chan, policy officer at the Soil Association, said that for consumers to make better choices for the environment, they needed to know how their food was produced.
"Producers who are taking steps towards better production have the opportunity to communicate this directly to the customer. This makes informed purchasing decisions possible and can support a transition to a more sustainable food system.”
At Pipers Farm, for over 30 years we have been passionate about our totally transparent supply chain and direct relationship with our customers. Right from the outset when the only place to buy our meat was at the farm gate or our small butchers shop in Exeter, to today, when you can order online for delivery to your door, we have always encouraged an open and honest dialogue with our customers. We want you to know exactly where your food has come from, in fact nothing gives us more joy than sharing that amazing stories of the brilliant hard working people who have made your food.
We believe the only way to have real integrity in the increasingly mistrustful industry is for you to have a direct relationship with the farmer, grower, maker, baker, forager... of your food. Ask them questions and do your research, don't just trust what is written on a label.
For over 30 years our mission has been to produce food that you can eat with complete confidence and we are thankful to all of you that have been on this journey with us. We want to see the food industry disrupted and a better, more honest one in its place.
For now though, we are on hand should you have any questions.