In the 18th century, the cost of a pineapple in Europe was equivalent to thousands of today’s dollars. At that price, rather than being eaten, they were showcased as dinner party centerpieces – as an opulent demonstration of wealth and decadence. Now, pineapples are ubiquitous in supermarkets year-round, often costing the same as locally grown apples and tomatoes. The pineapple has truly gone global.
This globalization of the food supply chain is an incredible testament to human ingenuity that has delivered tangible benefits to consumers worldwide. The median person today not only has access to an exceptional variety of nutrients, but also easy access to worldly, non-local taste experiences.
Immeasurably more significant than an opportunity for an individual to eat pineapple 24/7, the globalization of the food supply chain also affects entire regions i.e. when an essential harvest catastrophically fails in one country, replacement harvests or substitute crops can be quickly brought in from farms anywhere on the planet.
Certainly, there is still considerable work to be done to deliver these benefits of globalization to developing countries and reduce world hunger: new solutions work this problem every day.
Complexity from a quality perspective
Globalization, however, is more than just the widespread availability of internationally-sourced goods, it also relates to the complexity of the present food supply chain. Even moderately processed foods, such as milk, honey and seafood, may pass through many businesses across several countries on their journey from origin to end-point.
Complex, processed food products, such as microwave meals and infant formula, often source ingredients from different countries which creates a complicated – global – supply chain. This complexity presents substantial challenges for manufacturers and regulators to maintain food authenticity and prevent food fraud, as well as comply with standards, regulations and trade laws.
Regulations are put in place by authorities to keep consumers safe, prevent them being misled, and ensure that the food that reaches consumers is both nutritious, safe and free from illegal alterations. Food fraud - the act of intentional adulteration to generate higher profits - is estimated to cost up to $15 billion per year to the industry.
Alteration identification is a gargantuan task in supply chains that spans the globe and involves a large number of different businesses and authorities. Some aspects of the problem can be tackled with smart packaging and digitalization that enhance product traceability. However, the most dependable way of ensuring that consumers are receiving the food they are paying for is to have a food control system that is supported by testing at the key steps in the global supply chain.
Non-standard is the standard
The complexity of the modern supply chain for food and beverages has led to numerous national and supranational regulations and standards that attempt to maintain the quality of products in their respective markets.
Trouble arises due to the lack of harmonization amongst these different standards, where foodstuffs produced legally in Country A may be processed within Country B, C, D and E before arriving for sale in a destination Country F. This destination country of sale may have very different quality standards compared with the country of origin, and it is thus important to accurately know the path the product has taken through the supply chain and the different authoritative bodies it has passed through.
In this environment, fulfilling regulations can require enormous amounts of time-consuming and costly bureaucracy for manufacturers and logistics companies. It is important that these businesses have the tools they need to not only document and trace their processes, but also to rapidly test ingredients to verify that their control systems are working.
Another aspect of the global supply chain is the presence of import and export fees, as well as political issues of trade and tariffs. Cross-industry and cross-regulator communication may require further quality standard harmonization in order to reach its full potential.
The Codex Alimentarius is a set of global standards compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Although the standards are voluntary, the Codex is used as a chief reference in international trade disputes and agreements. It also provides developing nations with a resource and standards to refer to as they build their food laws and control systems. Continuing to foster international harmonization efforts for food standards and analytical testing criteria is critical in our globalized food world.
The opportunities tariffs present to food fraudsters are fluid and less understood. Duties and tariffs are put in place ostensibly to protect local producers and lower trade deficits but can be overcome through tactics such as origin masking or transshipment. These methods either mislabel products, or ship them through an unaffected third country, thereby suppressing the true country of origin. In order to ensure that trade agreements and restrictions are adequately enforced, it is important to integrate food testing methods into control systems along the global supply chain.
Government, regulators and industry all have a seat at the table
As detailed in the industry’s stalwart report on the integrity and assurance of food supply networks, the Elliott Review, effective implementation of a food crime prevention framework also requires intense coordination between government, regulators and industry.
A great deal of effort already goes into directly combating food fraud around the globe and enforcing regulations, with a two-pronged approach involving both product traceability and testing. Traceability describes the ability of trading partners to track and trace food products throughout the supply chain, allowing rapid identification of all involved parties, and helping to build consumer trust. Digital innovations such as blockchain and the Internet-of-Things are allowing increased levels of traceability.
Ultimately, traceability will continue to be a problem while there is a lack of enforced global standards. While enhancing traceability will improve transparency of the global supply chain, subjecting a food product to analytical investigation remains the most authoritative means of determining its true contents and preventing food fraud.
In an increasingly connected world, the path from farm to fork has grown into a complicated system involving different stakeholders with different motivations.
What unites these producers, manufacturers and regulators is a determination to maintain a safe food supply chain and to combat food fraud. Regulatory authorities and researchers have been able to utilize the rapid technological advances that have been developed to analyze food and understand its ingredients on the molecular level.
As technology advances and more rapid testing methods become available, it will be easier to deploy analytical testing along the supply chain and further minimize the chances of food safety or quality concerns from accidents, errors or fraudulent activities.
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