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Food Fraud Vulnerability: Cocoa and the Ebola Outbreak

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The recent Ebola outbreak has effects that consumers may not have considered.Cocoa Beans

By Karen Everstine, PhD and Erin Mann, MPH

Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of food, otherwise known as “food fraud,” is the intentional adulteration or misrepresentation of food for economic gain. Food fraud increases risks to public health, hampers quality assurance programs, and removes the consumer’s ability to make informed food choices. Food safety programs are not enough to reduce the risk of food fraud, since it is an intentional act. Many different factors can affect the risk of a food product or ingredient to fraud, including factors that cause supply shortages, price hikes, or otherwise affect the supply chain. One recent example is the Ebola outbreak centered in West Africa.

The ongoing Ebola outbreak is unprecedented both in magnitude and duration. The first death from Ebola virus disease (EVD) was reported in December 2013 and new infections are still occurring as of August 2015. According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak has led to nearly 28,000 EVD cases and over 11,000 deaths. While the vast majority of EVD cases were reported in three West African countries - Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone - cases were reported in a total of ten countries across three continents.

The death toll, the strain on medical systems and infrastructure, and damage to local economies have been tragic. An outbreak of this magnitude may continue to have far-reaching impacts beyond public health, including impacts on food production and trade. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 65% of the world’s cocoa beans are produced in West Africa. Cocoa is the only commodity exported from West Africa to the United States in a commercially meaningful quantity and the world’s largest cocoa producer is Côte d’Ivoire. While no EVD cases were reported in Côte d’Ivoire, the country relies on migrant labor from neighboring Liberia and Guinea to harvest cocoa. Disruptions to normal harvest processes and transportation routes threatened to reduce supply, introduce instability to global markets, and increase global prices. Reduced product supply and higher prices are known drivers of the incentive for food fraud.

Cocoa products, particularly cocoa powder and cocoa butter, have been past targets of food fraud. The NCFPD EMA Incidents Database documents incidents involving counterfeit cocoa in Russia and Ghana and adulteration of cocoa powder with sucrose and ground cocoa husks in the Czech Republic and China. The USP Food Fraud Database contains scholarly publications related to the detection of adulterated cocoa products with a range of adulterants, including arrowroot, grain flours, chicory powder, carob powder, chestnut shell, peanut shell, sesame meal, soybean meal, soybean flour, and other non-authentic material.

In response to the outbreak and at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, NCFPD researchers performed a rapid assessment of food fraud vulnerability of cocoa from West Africa. NCFPD utilized an adapted version of a guidance document for conducting food fraud vulnerability assessments. We broadly assessed five contributing factors to food fraud vulnerability in cocoa:

• supply chain characteristics,
• effectiveness of laboratory testing methods to ensure quality and purity,
• geopolitical considerations,
• fraud history, and
• the economic environment.

The factors that contributed the most to food fraud vulnerability in cocoa were geopolitical considerations and economic anomalies. There were temporary border closures in Côte d’Ivoire and adverse weather in Ghana, the second largest cocoa producer in West Africa.  Cocoa prices saw a sustained upward trend following identification of the outbreak, and there appeared to be some fluctuation in prices in August-October 2014. (Since this time, prices have remained relatively stable, with a more recent increase in June and July 2015.)

Factors that reduced food fraud vulnerability included supply chain characteristics and fraud history. While West Africa produces the largest share of the world’s cocoa beans, most of the processing takes place elsewhere. For example, Europe and the Americas grind the majority of cocoa beans. Most of the cocoa imported to the U.S. arrives in the form of beans instead of cocoa powder, butter, or paste. Food fraud is more common in powdered or liquid products than in whole products such as cocoa beans.

At the time NCFPD conducted this assessment, we concluded the overall fraud vulnerability score for cocoa in the U.S. was medium-low. Fortunately, there have been no been publicly reported cases of fraud in cocoa products since the outbreak began. This is just one example of the complexity of factors that can affect the incentive and opportunity for fraud in the food products we eat. The anticipated release of new Food Safety Modernization Act rules over the coming months will shed more light on the additional responsibilities of all food protection stakeholders regarding food fraud prevention.