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Food and Consumer Product Fraud: Prevention and Mitigation

April 18, 2018

By Brian Bedard, Executive Director, GMA Science & Education Foundation

Wood pulp in shredded Parmesan cheese.  Melamine in baby formula and pet food. Asian catfish sold as grouper.  Pomegranate juice cut with grape juice.  Honey diluted with beet sugar syrup. These are just some of the cases of product fraud involving food or beverage products that have occurred in the U.S. market in recent years.

In today’s global marketplace, there are inherent risks to the integrity of the supply chain and the authenticity of its food and consumer products. Some estimate that food fraud, or economically motivated adulteration (EMA) as it is also known, costs the world economy $49 billion annually and it has been estimated that about 10 percent of the food we purchase is likely adulterated. In addition to the public health risks, the impact on any one particular company can range from minor economic damage to financial ruin.  The growing complexity of the global supply chain has only made it more difficult for companies in our industry to prevent product fraud.

The issue of product fraud recently took center stage during a session at the GMA Science Forum in late March in Washington, DC.  The session built on a 2010 consumer product fraud report,

Consumer Product Fraud: Deterrence and Detection, released by ATKearney with the support of GMA and the GMA Science and Education Foundation (SEF).  It explored the evolving scope of issues and approaches to better understand, assess and prevent product fraud.  The session provided attendees with a look at the experiences and lessons learned by herbal supplement and pharmaceutical manufacturers on how best to prevent and mitigate product fraud.  The session also included an update on research at Michigan State University (MSU) supported by GMA and the SEF that attempts to more clearly define product fraud and address the growing confusion around this terminology so that companies can be better aligned in their efforts to attack the problem.

Dr. Holly Johnson of the American Herbal Products Association set the scene with some historical perspective.  She noted that product fraud was not a new phenomenon. She cited a report from 1853 which found that Prussian blue was often grounded and mixed with gypsum and then blended with Himalayan tea to ensure it presented the perfect green color that the tea drinkers of England expected at that time.

Dr. Johnson noted that the herbal sector today must contend with fraud cases involving the substitution and drug spiking of herbal remedies for male enhancement (laced with sildenafil), weight loss (laced with diuretics, laxatives) and athletic performance (laced with steroids). She stressed that enforceable FDA regulations supported by standards and specifications associated with the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), state-of-the-art industry testing methods and industry-wide transparency efforts have all been critical steps in preventing adulterated herbal products from reaching the marketplace.

Dr. Shabbir J. Safdar, Executive Director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, highlighted past cases associated with heparin, cancer medications and, more recently, counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.  Dr. Safdar said that industry collaboration has been a key component in addressing drug counterfeiting followed closely by stringent internal enforcement practices.

One of the first steps pharmaceutical companies took to combat the issue was to put in place personnel whose sole focus was on protecting brand security.  This led to closer collaboration with law enforcement agencies accompanied by more stringent internal investigations and robust monitoring of supply chains.  One such successful collaboration has been the Rx360 program of industry wide audits based on shared voluntary standards and a recognized compliance seal.

Safdar also said that international industry collaboration played an important part in efforts to combat counterfeiting.  Those collaborations included work with groups such as the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition Inc., (IACC), the Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition and the Pharmaceutical Security Institute.

Dr. John Spink from Michigan State University focused his discussion on food fraud and highlighted the preliminary results of joint research based on a global survey of food fraud terminology conducted by MSU, GMA and SEF.  While there was consensus among respondents in identifying food fraud as a food safety issue with 86% supporting that categorization, the research suggests that there is a lack of consensus within industry on the proper terminology to use for describing food fraud.

Of the terms included to represent “intentional deception for economic gain,” 50% preferred the use of “food fraud,” 15% sided with “economically motivated adulteration,” 9% selected “EMA,” 7% chose “food protection,” 5% preferred “food integrity,” 5% chose “food authenticity,” and 2% liked “food crime.”

Dr. Spink noted that the survey highlighted the confusion in food fraud-related terminology and how the potential overlap in definitions could impede industry efforts to address the issue.  He further stressed that given the current scope of food fraud in the global food marketplace, there is an urgent need to clarify definitions and terms that can collectively be used by companies to address food fraud on a global scale. CODEX is currently reviewing the definitions of food fraud in considerable detail and this work is expected to inform current efforts to achieve better consensus on the terminology around this issue.

The session provided attendees with some important insights and lessons learned on addressing product fraud.  The GMA and SEF are currently updating the ATKearney report to clarify the current scope of this issue and provide industry with guidance on how best to prevent and mitigate it going forward.  The updated report should be released by June.


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