15 February 2013

Philippe Baralon – Anti-fraud systems could still be improved

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Damage to industry brands linked to fraud is almost as important as food safety because of the impact on their public image, while the current measures to prevent fraud could still be improved.

A French veterinary surgeon and former researcher at the Toulouse National Veterinary School, Philippe Baralon is the founder of Phylum, a consultancy specialised in food safety working for the food industry. Following the opening of an official investigation by the French anti-fraud squad DGCCRF, he tells youris.com about the European meat anti-fraud control system, which globally works, but could still be improved.

Is the horse meat scandal a major food crisis?
No, I don't think so. There have been much more spectacular cases of food fraud in Europe, in the past. Some of these involved serious health hazards and even casualties. For example, motor oil was found to be added to Spanish olive oil in 1981. Or counterfeit Hungarian paprika coloured with toxic, lead-based antirust was discovered at the beginning of the 1990's. 

Here we are talking about a case of fraud, where horse meat originating from a slaughterhouse in Romania has been re-labelled as beef in France and sold as such. It is not a food safety issue, so far. No casualty has been reported and eating horse meat in place of beef poses no threat to health. However, brands like Findus, whose lasagnes were found to contain this horse meat, consider fraud almost as important as food safety. This is because it has an impact on public image and on business too. Therefore, these brands implement a control plan both for safety and fraud.

How can fraud be detected with a high level of reliability in the meat supply chain?
Detection can be based on molecular methods, which aim at finding markers specific to animal species, targeted at bovine, equine, porcine markers...  They consist in immunology assays and DNA testing. However, these tests are not mandatory. Most of the time, manufacturers audit their suppliers on a regular basis. This leads them to build a relationship based on trust, rather than on systematically sending goods to the lab. When subjected to a control, manufacturers are only required to provide certificates stating the origin of the products they are processing.  For example, testing to detect a possible substitution of beef by horse meat is not done routinely, because it has, in theory, little chance to happen.

How about sanitary controls?
They are mandatory. The European Union, through its agency EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), has issued a Regulation consisting of a double-control system. At the first level, the manufacturer has to perform its own tests, and must choose an independent laboratory for this purpose. At the second level, the national authorities, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, for instance, can perform random checks that the Regulation has been adequately applied.  Currently, self-testing in the first place is the rule, be it for fraud or sanitary aspects. I believe that it is a good system.

But didn’t this system fail?
Not from my point of view. Proof is that in this case of meat substitution, the chain of suppliers was backtracked very rapidly. In the wake of the mad cow crisis at the end of the 1990's, traceability was improved and the labelling of meat mentioning the animal type and origin was made mandatory. This system is rather stringent: butchers, supermarkets and restaurants must clearly display the origin of their meat. However, this labelling is not required for processed meat found in rather small amounts in ready meals, like lasagnes. The lesson to draw from this horse meat scandal is that information about the origin of processed meat should also be printed on the packaging, to ensure a better traceability and inform the consumer.

How to improve the efficiency of fraud control?
Massive DNA testing has been announced throughout EU member States for the next few months. It certainly pays in terms of communication. And it will deter from fraud, but it cannot last too long. Indeed, doing the systematic analysis required to obtain a maximum guarantee on the origin of meat is not sustainable. The solution is to improve the audit system and to take into account risks like this in control plans. These last years, the food industry had put an emphasis on sanitary aspects. Now it needs to better estimate risks of such as a fraud.

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