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Food fraud podcast transcript

This is the safefood podcast. 

James McIntosh: Hello, I'm James McIntosh, chief toxicologist with safefood. This is our food safety podcast series, where we look at different elements of the food chain on the island of Ireland. In today's podcast, we're going to take a look at food fraud, what it means for food businesses, particularly the small and medium sized food manufacturers, and what they can do to protect themselves in this regard.  

I'm delighted to welcome Chris Elliott, who is an internationally recognised expert in food safety, food fraud and food integrity. Chris is Professor of Food Safety at Queen's University Belfast, and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security also at Queen's University Belfast. Chris is an internationally recognised expert in the field of global food security. 

He is a visiting professor at the China Agricultural University in Beijing and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He's a recipient of the Winston Churchill fellowship, and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of biology and the Institute of Food Science and Technology. In 2017, he was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Theophilus Redwood prize, and he was also awarded an OBE. Of most relevance to today's topic, 2013 Chris led the British government's independent review of food systems following the horsemeat scandal that same year. So, Chris, you're very welcome. 

Chris Elliot:  Hi, James. And yes, it's very good to be talking to you. And you know, food fraud is a difficult, complex subject, but there's nothing I like to talk about more. 

James McIntosh:  Chris, that's an incredible CV, I didn't leave out a Nobel Prize here or there did I by any chance? 

Chris Elliot: I think it's in the post at the moment. 

James McIntosh: Chris, just for our listeners, can you tell us where exactly did your involvement in the whole broader food safety area begin? 

Chris Elliot:  Yeah, thanks, James. So I've been involved in food safety for a very long time. You know, if I start to count up the decades, it worries me greatly. And I guess really going back to the 1980s, when Europe was starting to enter, some world leading legislation about food safety, particularly chemical food safety, I became very involved in it then, helping come up with some of the European directorates, developing a national monitoring program for chemicals, and food and so forth. From that, I always call that the accidental side of food safety when things happen by accident.  

Food fraud is the opposite. This is about deliberate intent to contaminate food and cheat people. 

James McIntosh:  Chris that's very interesting, because I suppose we hear a lot of terminology used today, including things like food security, food integrity, and food crime. Where does food fraud fit into this, you know, the grand scheme of things here? 

Chris Elliot:  Food fraud has been talked about for quite a long time. And it has been going on for just a few 1,000 years, James, probably will go on for the next few 1,000 years as well. People will always set out to cheat other people that's just the nature of mankind. What I tried to do was, try to instil in people that it's not something trivial, it's not just your butcher putting a little bit of sawdust into your sausages, you know, this is criminal activity.  

And I actually prefer to talk about food crime, crime in the food system brought about by people who want to cheat consumers, who want to cheat businesses, and will absolutely destroy you as quickly as look at you. So, it is the seriousness of criminal activity, and you think, am I exposed to these criminals? Because I never knew anything about it. And it's a bit of a shock to many people. 

James McIntosh:  Well Chris your institute at Queen's University Belfast is involved a lot in the detection and prevention of food fraud and food crime. Can you give us some examples of some of the more memorable discoveries, food fraudulent discoveries that you've made in foods these past few years? 

Chris Elliot: Yeah, sure, James. Often, I talk about, food fraud is about salt to saffron. Salt is the cheapest possible food ingredient and saffron is the most expensive food ingredient, and you'll get fraud in both of those and you'll get fraud in everything else in between. There is no food ingredient, no food commodity that is not free from fraud.  

So, we've investigated everything from salt to saffron I will tell you. Now we uncovered massive amount of fraud in herbs and spices. And that is ongoing subject for us for quite a number of years. A lot of that is driven by tip offs that I get all sorts of people contact me to tell me that there's some dodgy dealings going on. I got a tip off in 2013, about fraud in oregano. And I didn't have time to look at it until 2015. But when we went out and looked at oregano that was on sale in the UK and the Irish markets, 25% of every product was adulterated. Okay. 25%. And now we've done that on a global scale. And guess what, 25% of all oregano on sale in the world is fraudulent. Believe it or not, when we checked Australia, it was 65% of all products on the market were fraudulent. And we're still doing this.  

And just before Christmas, we did quite a big expose about sage. Again, we chose sage because I got another tip off. There's always the seasonality about sage and you know, we like to eat sage and onion stuffing at Christmas. We went out and looked and guess what - 25% of all the sage on the market was adulterated and had been tampered with. We've done a lot of investigations in things like meat and fish and rice and really anything that we look at hard enough, we will find somebody somewhere cheating. 

James McIntosh: So Chris, when a member of the public buys some oregano they expect it to be 100%. But should we be worried about this level of adulteration of I suppose basic foods that we buy every day? 

Chris Elliot: And that's an important question that you asked James because it's not the business model of people who cheat in terms of food fraud, to make people ill or kill people. Because if they do that, you'll actually know that they're there. They're up to their no good. But often, they don't really think about the consequences of what they're doing.  

So, go back to the example of oregano, they were basically you know, the fraudsters were adding any green leafy material they could possibly get their hands on, and using it as a bulking agent. So, we find evidence of things like olive leaves, cistus leaves, we think, you know, if they had the know-how, they would probably collect everybody’s grass cuttings and put it into the oregano. Now, we didn't find any major food safety with the oregano, with one exception that the adulterated material had much higher levels of pesticide present. The reason for that was they were using agricultural waste material as a bulking agent.  

And not to alarm people but you know, I know plenty of examples where food fraudsters have led to people ending up in hospital and actually killing people. So, it is a very serious issue that we're talking about. 

James McIntosh: So, Chris, I suppose these fraudsters are really parasitic in their approach, insofar as they don't set out to injure people, but frequently they can? 

Chris Elliot: I think, to describe these individuals or groups of individuals as parasites is absolutely right, they're there to live off us, and to exploit us as much as they possibly can. And what we need is good measures to actually stop these parasites from invading us. 

James McIntosh:  So, Chris, obviously, this should be a major concern to the food industry, particularly food manufacturers, but is this something more relevant for shall we say the bigger more multinational companies? or is it something that should be of concern right across the board, including the small and medium sized food businesses? 

Chris Elliot: Again, the question you ask is a very good one, a very pertinent one, James, because when I investigated the horsemeat scandal going back 2013-2014, it really was big businesses that were implicated - massive retailers, massive meat companies. And what happened to those companies was massive reputational damage. They took big, big financial hits.  

And what's happened since then, is the large companies have really thought much more carefully about trying to keep those people who cheat outside their supply chains, and they have put huge amount of resources into it. And I think it's absolutely the right thing to do. And I work with many of these companies.  

When it comes to the smaller businesses, our beautiful SMEs, medium-sized businesses, it becomes much, much more difficult to really know what is the right thing to do? How do I keep the cheats out of my business because you've got the massive reputational damage, okay? I mean, I've dealt with small businesses who have gone out of business because of people cheating, not them themselves but they get implicated in it.  

And then there's all the issues where you could actually be cheating your customers and not knowing about it. And that's a very difficult thing for people who are setting out to do the right thing to suddenly realise. So, the protection of small businesses, medium businesses, is more tricky, but absolutely something that businesses have got to think about front and centre. 

James McIntosh: And I suppose there's obviously a resource issue as well, Chris, when you compare small businesses to the bigger multinationals, I mean, frequently, a lot of these smaller manufacturers they could be just one person operations, micro enterprises, who have to do everything. And they've got to think of everything. And just from that point of view, what can they do, really, to protect themselves from the negative impacts of food fraud, particularly the smaller industries? 

Chris Elliot: Yeah. So, let's focus on small businesses. And I think so much effort goes in to the running of small businesses, and you're right, you have got to be a jack of all trades, you've got to do the buying, selling, the multitude of different things.  

Now, in terms of managing food fraud, there are a number of really easy and key things the business should do. And the first is know where you're buying your materials from. Okay.  

So if a white van pulls outside your door and offers to sell you meat that's 20% or 30%, under market price, you don't buy it, because what you're doing is you're leaving your business wide open, absolutely wide open. Only buy from bona fide sources.  

And also, when you buy from those bona fide sources, buy it from a source that has a good degree of accreditation, and it could have a BRC double A rating, because that means they have had to go through a lot of checking and stuff as well. Okay, so only buy from the most reputable sources. Somebody phones you up and offers you something over the telephone, don't buy it. Okay, you're not trading in stocks and shares here. Okay. You're not buying a Labrador pup from a guy in the pub. Okay, you're buying stuff that could, in the worst-case scenario, could kill people. 

James McIntosh: And people are going to consume? 

Chris Elliot: Yes. So, buying from reputable sources is the most important thing. If something is too cheap, and too good to be true, it is. It is probably a reject from somebody else. It could be from rustle cattle, there's a myriad of reasons. And these people who sell their stuff will have the most beautiful stories and tales about how they came about this. And it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don't do it. Don't go there. Okay? 

James McIntosh: Buy or beware. 

Chris Elliot: Be very aware. 

James McIntosh: So, what can we who work in academia and research and indeed the public service sector, do to assist these food businesses, particularly the smarter food businesses in this regard? 

Chris Elliot: Yes, it's a good and important question that you asked James. My advice to small businesses is only buy from reputable sources and don't buy you know from the white van men. Don't buy from people who phone your mobile phones and make the offers because if it's too good to be true, it is too good to be true. It's probably out of date or adulterated in some way so don't go near it with a bargepole. 

Also, you can get external advice. Because I know small businesses, you've got to do so many things, you've got to be the jack of all trades. So small food businesses will be very familiar with HACCP. And HACCP is managing the hazards in terms of food safety that you have in your business.  

But there is another standard called VACCP and the V stands for vulnerability, and that's your vulnerability to fraud. You can go on to the internet and you can download VACCP plans actually, or my advice is go to one of the quite a myriad of different companies that are right here on the island of Ireland who offer to put a VACCP plan in place and train you in VAACP as well. It's like buying an insurance policy.  

And we don't like to pay our insurance, do we? You know, my house contents insurance is sitting on my kitchen table at the moment, and I don't particularly want to pay it. Because I've been doing that for the last 25 years and I've never claimed from it. But I can guarantee you, if I didn't renew it this year, the first thing I would do is regret that, so think about VACCP as another insurance policy, and one of the important insurance policies that you should really think about investing in. 

James McIntosh: If you want any small businesses listening to this today to take away one thing from this podcast, why would it be? 

Chris Elliot:  You're out to make a living, you’re out to provide a great service to your customers, there will be people out there wanting to exploit you. And trust is a wonderful word. And in terms of business would you trust somebody? Would you give them £500 out of your pocket or €500 and say would you look after that for me for three months and give it back - well you won't? Okay? Trust is something that is earned. Okay? And don't trust anybody that you don't know and doesn't have those credentials that I talked about. 

James McIntosh: Okay, Thanks, Chris. We'll end it there. And thank you for sharing your experiences and insights into food fraud, and how food businesses particularly SMEs can approach the issue.  

And thanks to you, our listeners, for tuning in. If you have any comments on today's podcast or you wish to ask a question on this issue, then please get in touch by email on [email protected]

If you want to hear more on this or other topics, search safefood podcasts wherever you get your podcasts or join the conversation on Twitter @safefoodnetwork or follow us on LinkedIn. If you want to access a range of free resources on this and a host of other issues, specifically for small food businesses, then I would encourage you to join the safefood Knowledge Network by logging on to Until next time, goodbye and take care. 

That was the safefood podcast. The presenter was James McIntosh. 

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