Food Protection and Defense Institute: Combating Food Fraud with Technology

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Food fraud and safety is a growing global concern that’s capturing the attention of an increasing number of resources worldwide, including the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2008, China experienced over 6,000 infant illness events and a number of deaths associated with baby formula that contained a dangerous chemical additive called melamine, which sickened numerous household pets only a year prior.

In 2013, countless European consumers were shocked to discover that products labeled as containing beef actually contained either undeclared or improperly declared horse meat, with some products constituting up to 100% of the species.

And more recently, a US Food and Drug Administration investigation revealed that certain parmesan cheese products produced in Pennsylvania were cutting so-called 100 percent real parmesan cheese with wood pulp.

These are just a handful of food fraud examples in our food system.  There are plenty more. Other common incidences include white fish packaged as scallops and industrial oils passed off as pure olive oil.

Dr Amy Kircher, an epidemiologist who used to work at North American Aerospace Defense Command and the US Air Force on health informatics, biosurveillance, and data analytics, will be talking about the issue at GAI’s AgTech Week in San Francisco next week.

Kircher is director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI), which is a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence based at the University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus. She has a background in Homeland Security and Defense and worked on the response to events such as Hurricane Katrina. FPDI was founded in 2004 to research, educate, and develop innovative solutions to protect our food system.

“In the early years we focused on intentional terrorism because of September 11th but we have learned that any vulnerability in the system can be exploited,” Kircher tells AgFunderNews. “Food fraud, a disgruntled employee, or mother nature are all prime examples.”

Just how important is the institute’s efforts to develop food protection mechanisms?

Consider a cheeseburger and all of the components that may be involved in its preparation. According to Kircher, over 80 different ingredients may be involved.

“That’s 80 or more different supply chains that make up lunch and we need to protect each facet: transportation, public health, computer science and engineering,” she explains. “It’s truly farm-to-fork. No single aspect of the food is owned, managed, or regulated by any single entity.”

Although terrorist threats against the food chain—both actual and theoretical—were the primary focus of Kircher’s work and remain a central concern for FPDI, but a recent rash of intentional food adulteration and fraud has turned the researcher’s focus elsewhere.

“Probably the biggest issue is economically motivated adulteration, which is also referred to as EMA or food fraud. The acting individual or company is not necessarily trying to do damage to human or animal health, but they are trying to make money doing problematic things like putting water in lemon juice to increase their profit,” Kircher explains.

Cutting out food fraud after it’s already happened is one thing, but finding ways to prevent it from permeating the food system and reaching various corners of the globe is another. FPDI has crafted a multidisciplinary approach to finding the next potential source of EMA.

“We look at these issues through most lenses, which comes from the diversity of disciplines we have at the consortium,” says Kircher. “We look retrospectively and identify cases from the past, what has happened, and to look for a precursor like a natural disaster or extreme weather,” she explains. “Did some new trade open that was never open before? Was it the Ebola outbreak that changed the pattern of how cocoa moves out of West Africa giving new actors a chance to add adulterants? We look for conditions that are ripe for this to happen.”

For Kircher, new data-focused technologies may help provide the transparency we need to tamp down food fraud while also providing other prophylactic mechanisms to promote food safety.

Currently, a country may post reports reflecting refusals of food imports online in PDF documents. This can create headaches for anyone who wants to compile this information into a database that can be uploaded or manipulated.

Through technology, however, a researcher can grab that data, scrape it from the PDFs, and structure it to match up with food refusals aggregated from other countries.

“We really have a lot of information that exists now collectively that we can openly access, but it is often presented to us in really challenging formats,” she says. “That is easily overcome through technology, however.”

“If you overlay the data we have with known adulterations that have happened in the past and marry that with the drivers that we identified as leading up to some of this disruption, it can be extremely helpful,” she adds.

Ultimately, being able to aggregate data from a variety of sources in a meaningful way will go a long way towards thwarting food fraud and preventing foodborne illness outbreaks. There’s one big catch to pooling all that data, however: getting companies to share.

“Will there be times when data is withheld? Yes. Will it always be for a legitimate reason? No,” says Kircher. “Companies often have proprietary and sometimes legal reasons for not wanting to share information. But from a defense and food safety perspective, companies will say that there is no competitive advantage to withholding information and that we have to share information so that these events don’t continue.”

The advances in data technology also offer a big incentive for companies to be forthcoming with their data. Many of these innovations allow farmers, food producers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to look back along the supply chain and get a better sense of where their liability falls along the farm-to-fork spectrum. Broadening access to data may help the many individuals and companies who comprise our food chain to get a more accurate sense of where they land on that spectrum, allowing them to more accurately identify potential hazards and mitigate them instead of waiting for an adverse event to reveal the chink in the armor.

Along with some companies’ potential aversion to sharing data, getting new technologies into the hands of food companies may prove another challenge for our food system’s safety.

Not every company is at the forefront of the innovation curve. While some simply lack the resources to adopt the latest platform, widget, or scanner, others may have an aversion to learning new systems or retiring longstanding methodologies. And as Kircher points out, even the tech-savvy companies that have mountains of data often don’t know how to make sense of it or how to share it.

“There are lots of innovative methods and tools that we have created collectively that we need to transition to the industry and that take funding. We can get the R&D funding, but we cannot get the funding to cross the chasm between research and industry to apply those innovations,” she explains. “We have to get those innovations into the industry to make a difference. They aren’t creating and developing these solutions in-house because that’s not what they do. They produce food.”

As the United States implements the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first major overhaul of our food safety regulatory scheme in 70 years, other countries are following suit and taking more proactive approaches to their legal frameworks for food safety. She’s also experienced a recent increase in interest from law enforcement outfits including the intergovernmental police task force Interpol.

“Everybody is realizing that transparency is necessary. We have restrictions, but how do we share information better?” she posits. “We are ripe for transformation.”

Hear Kircher speak at GAI AgTech Week in San Francisco on June 23.

What technologies are you seeing that are helping to combat food fraud? We posted an article about some in the seafood industry here.

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