Fighting Food Fraud

To intercept future food scandals in Asia and the world, innovations like blockchain and artificial intelligence could prevent fraud and reduce anxiety about what’s really on our plates.

Stopping food fraud in its tracks

From ingredients like stabilizers to ready-made meals, Singapore-headquartered digital marketplace OneAgrix is banking on the power of blockchain to ensure the integrity of its halal products, aggregating information not just on the product’s quality but also the certifying body.

By enabling real-time visibility, blockchain is ushering in a transformation in the halal food supply chain, which has traditionally involved only regulatory compliance. However, Dr. Mohd Helmi Ali, associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, explained to Asian Scientist Magazine that a certification system alone relies on trust in the authoritative bodies and could still be susceptible to manipulation.

In Malaysia, government officials and a large network of companies had falsely labeled and sold imported horse, kangaroo and pork meat as halal-certified beef. With no attempt to countercheck the certification status, the corruption scandal carried on unopposed for four decades before the whistle was finally blown last December 2020.

Beyond certification data, blockchain’s ability to track each stage of movement along the supply chain without needing an intervening body can help circumvent fraud and resist manipulation. Moreover, sensors can relay data on motion, temperature and other environmental factors, effectively monitoring the product’s delivery conditions and catching cross-contamination or counterfeits.

For Ali, widespread adoption of blockchain will be key to delivering its promise of enhanced traceability throughout the halal sector.

“Blockchain cannot work at the optimum level when the supply chain has missing links,” he added. “Trusted alliances cannot be realized if a firm does not gradually become more welcoming towards data sharing and being digitally connected.”

While the arrival of these solutions is an exciting— and needed—advancement for food integrity, no single method is the silver bullet to addressing fraud, Bansal said.

For Hang, shipping out changes to the current food supply chain in Asia and worldwide will depend on investing in and creating an ecosystem for adopting innovations like blockchain.

“It takes time to build up the infrastructure and add items for tracking,” he shared. “There are many off-chain elements to consider like the high costs of sensors and RFID tags.”

As consumers become more aware about sustainable food sourcing and distribution, they will continue to look for guarantees that what arrives on the dinner table is exactly as its package promises. To prevent and intercept future scandals, Asia’s research and industry sectors are coming together to thwart food fraud, starting from transparency in local contexts and gradually moving to traceability across the larger region and the globe.

“We need to bear in mind that sustainable supply chain management requires all of its players to carry out their role effectively,” Ali concluded.

Technology is bound to play a vital role both in assessing quality and making this information readily available to consumers, catalyzed by collaborations across borders to champion food integrity.

This article was first published in the January 2022 print version of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Lam Oi Keat/Asian Scientist.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Erinne Ong reports on basic scientific discoveries and impact-oriented applications, ranging from biomedicine to artificial intelligence. She graduated with a degree in Biology from De La Salle University, Philippines.

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