15 February 2013

Mona Elena Popa – Complexity is the food chain’s weakest link

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Despite the robust traceability system adopted in Romania, the complexity of the supply chain multiplies the opportunities for fraudulent food to infiltrate the chain.

Mona Elena Popa, is Professor of industrial biotechnology at the University of Agronomical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Bucharest in Romania. She talks to youris.com about what is really happening in Romania, which is bound by EU traceability regulations. Due to the huge amount of data required by the EU traceability Regulations and the long distribution chain, anybody anywhere might change the records in the supply chain.

Is the food traceability system able to guarantee the complete food safety? 
In theory, the law is strong enough, but if the fraud is wilfully committed, it could happen anywhere on the food chain.  The traceability system includes specific elements of each production stage. For example, the traceability includes the genetic history of the raw material, the inputs and outputs of the product from one link in the supply chain to another, the animal diseases and pests record, etc.  The system also includes a quality management system for food safety, called HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). It is designed to identify critical points where issues such as food contamination may occur, and where preventive measures can be taken, or track a problem back to a supplier of a distributor.

Which are in your opinion the weaknesses of the traceability system? 
Although it involved a high quantity of data, the traceability system can be defrauded. The longer the trading chain is, the easier the cheating is, because it is very difficult to monitor and control such a massive volume of data. In order to ensure an accurate monitoring of these data, the manufacturer should have special software, which is not cheap. HACCP standard does not require the meat manufacturers to use this software, but to prove the traceability of their products. Those who do not have the software, keep their inventory and records on files. There is a risk that products codes’ labels may be lost or mistaken, which is not the case with the data saved in computers using that software.

What solutions do you see to limit the fraud?
If it were a single codifying standard for the identification of the information, it would be easier to monitor and control the traceability and the history of a product. It is very difficult to handle such a big amount of information. I can give you an example: in a hamburger, there can be other 20 ingredients, alongside with the meat. Each ingredient has its own traceability codes, and the manufacturer is obliged to keep the inventory of all these codes. To these are added the codes related to the processing time, to the package, to the expiry time, to the containers in which the products have been carried, to the distribution places etc. Therefore, it is difficult to find where the fraud occurred within the food chain, if the recorded data are not kept for a certain period of time.

To what extend do manufacturers play an essential role in fraud prevention?
For the big manufacturers, it is impossible to confuse the origin of raw material, namely to take the horsemeat for the beef meat. Of course, they can, if they want to, if they act in bad faith. But it is more difficult for a big manufacturer to fake the papers because they are periodically audited. But I would like to mention a particularity of the Romanian manufacturers’ behaviour, inherited from the communist past. At that time, for fear that the products might be refused by the clients from abroad, the manufacturers and meat suppliers paid more attention to export merchandise. This fear is still present. Concern about the quality of the export goods is even higher than for those aimed at the domestic market.

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