Examining ethics to fight food fraud

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Lessons learned from the Chinese melamine scandal should stimulate greater discussion of ethical conduct in the food industry, says an article to be published in Trends in Food Science and Technology.

There has been a rash of food fraud scandals recently, including Chinese-manufactured melamine-tainted infant formula that sickened at least 300,000 children and killed six last year. Manufacturers added the chemical to watered-down formula in order to reduce costs and cheat tests for protein content.

The article’s authors, Wing-Fu Lai and Zenobia Chan, re-examined the incident drawing on various philosophical studies of ethics from Epicurus to Confucius. They claim that although legislation has a part to play to ensure food safety, in China and elsewhere, the role of ethics is often overlooked.

“Although new norms pertaining to milk contamination have been introduced…legislation alone seems not to completely eradicate unscrupulous food production in real practice,”​ they wrote.

Shared responsibility

To ensure ethical conduct along the food supply chain, they suggest that different layers of industry take an interest in its management, driven by a common concern for the public good. They recommend that investors, owners and managers, employees and workers, and suppliers and business partners all shoulder part of the responsibility by providing checks for different parts of the industry.

However, external social factors present challenges to ensuring that food is not deliberately contaminated. Poverty and under-education are particular problems at some points of the food chain, perhaps leading to the addition of chemicals like melamine “with little understanding of the severity of the problems caused by their actions.”

Trust violation

Chan and Lai also wrote that the increased distance between food production and consumption means that “consumers have to place unidirectional trust in the governance structure and safety of the existing agri-food system.”

“This trust relationship is basic to a harmonious society. Violation of it by food suppliers…evokes far-reaching distrust of the food system underpinning social stability.”

They added: “Whether technological advances are a boon or bane is largely determined by human ethics and manipulation,”​ and said that it is time to bring together food researchers with experts in ethics, social science, politics and commerce.

Earlier this month, Jim Griffiths, vice president of food, dietary supplements and excipient standards at US Pharmacopeia, told FoodNavigator-USA.com that the incidence of deliberate contamination of food proteins is likely to increase.

Much of the reason for this is due to the current economic crisis, as companies try to keep prices down and source cheaper, possibly less well-authenticated ingredients, he said.

Source: Published online ahead of print

Trends in Food Science & Technology​ (2009) doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2009.04.005

“Revisiting the melamine contamination event in China: implications for ethics in food technology”

Authors: Zenobia C. Y. Chan and Wing-Fu Lai

Related topics: R&D, Food safety and labeling

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