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Mitigating food fraud in the alternative proteins market

23 September 2022

Adem Kulauzovic sheds some light on the challenges faced by brands operating in the new emerging proteins market and provides insight on how the industry can work together to help manage these new risks. 



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The growing interest in alternative protein sources presents an exciting opportunity for brands, but it also comes with risks – not least the risk of food fraud and economically motivated adulteration, which can cause significant problems for brands in upstream supply chains. 

On a global level, there is an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of cattle and conventional meat farming, which is driving a rise in flexitarian, vegan, and plant-based diets, along with a growing interest in the use of alternative proteins such as peas, soya, wheat, and even insects. Indeed, a recent report from FMCG Gurus  revealed that 14% of global consumers had reduced or eliminated meat from their diet in the previous 12 months. The same report pointed out that 30% of global consumers found insects as a form of processed food, for example as flour or meal, appealing.

Consumers are waking up to the idea of insect farming as a sustainable solution for increasing food demands. Research from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggests that edible insects are not only high in protein, vitamins, and essential amino acids, but also have a very high food conversion rate. To produce the same amount of protein, crickets require one-sixth of the feed needed for cattle, one-quarter of that needed for sheep, and half that of pigs and chickens, all while producing lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Food fraud risk
As the alternative proteins market grows, so too do the challenges for brands operating within this space. Food fraud can be a key concern in emerging food markets – specifically, the risk of economically motivated adulteration (EMA), where low-quality, cheap ingredients are added to bulk out higher value goods. Common examples of EMA include the addition of corn or fructose syrup in high-value honey, and dilution of wine or other alcoholic beverages with vinegar or other low-value liquids.

The alternative proteins market, in my opinion, could be at particular risk of EMA. Unlike traditional meat-based proteins, plant and insect proteins are often broken down to reduce bulk and transportation costs, resulting in homogenous dry powders that can be almost indistinguishable to the naked eye, and are therefore very easy to dilute or ‘bulk out’ with cheaper, visually similar powders.

Food adulteration is of particular concern when dealing with ingredient shortages – such as those caused by supply chain issues or crop failures, as we are seeing today. It is no secret that ingredient shortages force brands to look outside their usual, secure supply chains, potentially opening the door for opportunistic counterfeiters to fill the gap in supply, as they look to take advantage of the increased cost of raw ingredients driven by global demand.

The risks associated with EMA in the alternative proteins market extend much further than consumers purchasing a lower quality product. In the past, adulterated products have been found to contain ingredients that are unsuitable for specific consumer demographics, unidentified allergens, and products that are harmful to human health (and pet health in some cases).

Brands operating in the alternative proteins space will very likely have customers with dietary restrictions for ethical or religious reasons. If insect powder – the majority of which is non-Kosher – were to inadvertently end up in a product labelled as vegan, vegetarian, or Kosher, this would undoubtedly cause serious upset with consumers within these demographics, leading to loss of trust and irreparable damage to brand image. 

Loss of brand image is nothing compared with the damage that could be done in the event of contamination with an unidentified allergen – and, believe me, when it comes to ‘dry powders’ there are many potential allergens to consider. Many alternative protein sources – including wheat, soya, and peas – are themselves recognised allergens, and subject to legislative allergen labelling requirements. In a similar vein, insect protein, while not currently recognised by most regional allergen labelling regulations, has been known to cause reactions in people with allergies to crustacea and house dust mites.

EMA can also include contamination with products that are not suitable for human consumption. A particularly devastating example of this was the 2008 melamine scandal in China, where infant formula was contaminated with melamine – a toxic, nitrogen-rich compound that falsely elevates protein levels in standard quality control tests – leading to the death of six children. Quality control tests have evolved since the melamine scandal. However, so too has counterfeiting – and the reality is that counterfeiters often know what tests are likely to be conducted and will seek to find ways around them.

The risks associated with the alternative proteins market have also been highlighted by the UK’s Food Standard’s Agency (FSA). The FSA identified alternative proteins, including insects, as one of several ‘Emerging technologies that will impact on the UK food system’, highlighting potential food safety risks associated with alternative proteins including a high risk of food fraud, contamination, and toxicity.

Mitigating risk
With the potential fallout of product mislabelling, the question remains, what can brands operating in the alternative proteins market do to protect themselves from the risk of food fraud? In my experience from working with manufacturers of processed food, the only way to overcome such issues is with transparency, data sharing, and collaboration. 

Food fraud is a global issue and fighting it will ultimately require significant collaborative action between all actors within global supply chains. Global food manufacturer Nestlé has, for example, developed a Food Fraud Prevention document with exactly this in mind – the document provides advice to industry about how to deal with this issue. In summary, it recommends that food operators, suppliers, and partners along the food value chain work together to improve transparency, and, in particular:

• To identify and address points of vulnerability in the supply chain;
• To add verification measures accordingly, and;
• To develop collaborative tools to facilitate data sharing.

There is also the question of legislation – as it stands there are very few legislative requirements for batch-level traceability of raw ingredients – including protein powders – but this could soon change. Indeed, new traceability requirements for certain raw produce are expected under the next update of the US Food Safety Modernization Act. It may only be a matter of time before the food industry follows the same route as the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD), and other pharmaceutical regulations, and mandates compulsory serialisation of products, in order to increase transparency within this market.

Until such time, brands producing processed goods are ultimately reliant on their suppliers – but the onus is on the brand to promote trust and transparency, and to ensure that the suppliers they work with can guarantee the legitimacy of their products and raw materials. Brands should also look to implement strict audits and inspections, with raw materials tested to verify that no adulteration has occurred.

Conclusion
There can be no doubt in my mind that the answer to combatting food fraud and adulteration in emerging food markets lies in collaborative action and data sharing. As the alternative proteins market grows – and with limited regulation in place – raw materials providers, food processors, packagers, and everyone involved in the global food supply chain will need to work together to improve supply chain transparency and the traceability of raw ingredients used in food production.

To share this information, and foster collaborative action, brands should look to partner with reliable coding and marking providers, to implement a system of audited, verified information, and provide manufacturers, retailers, and consumers with the data that links finished products to their original raw materials.

Adem Kulauzovic is director of automation at Domino Printing Sciences.


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