Unmasking the Threat

Illicit trade and in the agri-food sector pose significant economic and public health risks. Legitimate businesses face financial losses, governments lose tax revenue, and enforcement costs rise. Consumers are endangered by counterfeit and unsafe , eroding trust in the food supply chain. Fraudulent operators gain an unfair advantage, disrupting global trade and potentially leading to trade barriers. 

Protecting the integrity of the global food supply chain necessitates a multifaceted approach encompassing regulatory measures, enforcement, industry collaboration, and consumer . This article summarizes the World Trade 's (WTO) latest report on combating illicit trade in the agri-food sector, outlining strategies and recommendations to address this issue. 

Food Fraud: A Growing Issue

The debate over whether globalized trade exacerbates food fraud continues, with some emphasizing increased handling as a factor and others noting even local products can be vulnerable. However, the economic impact is undeniable, with TRACIT estimating annual losses at US$ 30-50 billion, excluding illicit alcohol, underscoring the urgent need for action. Food fraud also damages reputations and erodes consumer trust. The WTO report provides an overview of the most frauded food products (Figure 1).

food fraud
Figure 1: The most heavily targeted products in food fraud; Source: WTO, Qassurance

Decoding Food Fraud: What Motivates it?

The evolving nature of food fraud techniques and the pervasive presence of illicit trade throughout the food supply chain necessitates a shift in perspective: experts emphasize the importance of viewing food fraud as a continuous, dynamic process rather than isolated incidents. This approach enables the identification of vulnerabilities and potential entry points for fraudsters at each link in the chain, facilitating the of more effective and mitigation strategies. 

Beyond the operational details, understanding the root causes is paramount. WTO experts identify these key drivers as fueling the persistence of food fraud:

  • Insufficient legal frameworks and border controls 
  • Extensive, porous borders that provide entry points for smugglers 
  • Weakly regulated informal economies 
  • A large, profitable consumer market 
  • High poverty levels driving demand for cheaper food options 
Exposing food fraud: the new hidden truth
To read more about the cost of food fraud, check this article!

Identifying Food Fraud Vulnerabilities

While the nature of fraud makes detection and quantification difficult, globalization and intricate supply chains have undeniably amplified the risk by diminishing and traceability. For instance, the following things contribute to enhancing vulnerability to food fraud:


The booming cross-border food e-commerce market has exacerbated food fraud, creating significant challenges in ensuring transparency, traceability, and consumer protection due to exemptions for personal imports and limited recourse in fraudulent transactions.

New food sources and production systems

Emerging foods, processing methods, and inconsistent standards create opportunities for fraud due to a lack of established terminology, regulatory frameworks, and consumer familiarity. 

Informal food economy  

The vast informal food economy, particularly in , increases the vulnerability to food fraud due to a lack of regulation and oversight.  

Organized crime

Food fraud, often linked to organized crime, thrives in environments with low perceived costs and weak oversight.  

The Impact of Food Fraud on Sustainable Development  

Illicit trade in the global food industry causes billions in losses annually, undermining economic growth, poverty reduction, and food security. This illegal activity destabilizes economies, distorts markets, and threatens safe food supplies, impacting 11 of the 14 Development Goals, according to the WTO.

No poverty, zero hunger and good health and well-being (SDGs 1,2,3)  

Illicit trade exacerbates by reducing availability, increasing prices, and promoting the consumption of unsafe products. It also fuels poverty by undermining markets and reducing incomes, leading to malnutrition and broader economic instability

Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6)

The illicit use of agrochemicals poses significant risks, contaminating the environment and endangering both human health and ecosystems. 

Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8)

Illicit trade in agri-foods damages businesses, economies, and consumers' trust while fostering human rights abuses and jeopardizing sustainable development. 

Industry, innovation and infrastructure and sustainable cities and communities (SDGs 9 and 11) 

Counterfeit products undermine investment in research and innovation, disincentivize technological development, and hinder industrialization and sustainable economic growth. 

Responsible consumption and production (SDG 12)  

Food fraud threatens sustainability and disrupts ecosystems through practices like illegal deforestation and pesticide misuse. 

Life below water and on land (SDGs 14 & 15)

Illicit pesticide use not only contaminates waterways and degrades soil, but also poses a significant threat to biodiversity.

Peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16)

Organized crime's involvement in the illicit agri-food trade destabilizes economies, undermines the rule of law, and poses wider security risks, as exemplified by cases in Italy, , Kenya, the Maghreb region, and Mexico. 

Learning from Reality: Illegal Practices in the Trade of Seeds  

Illegal seed practices, including intellectual property and regulatory violations, threaten global food security, livelihoods, and seed industry integrity. Often linked to wider criminal activities, they undermine sustainable agriculture and consumer health. The 2008 Sicilian tomato crisis, where illegal reproduction led to widespread crop damage, exemplifies the devastating consequences (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Spread of the Pepino Mosaic- in Sicily, Italy, 2008-2010 Source: WTO, 2024  

Turning the Tide on Food Fraud: A Roadmap for Action

The WTO's rulebook offers guidance for national policies to combat illicit trade, emphasizing flexibility and non-discrimination. It also advocates for international agreements on agriculture, trade facilitation, and sanitary measures, among others.

Recognizing the dual impact of global trade on hunger reduction and increased food supply chain complexity, the WTO emphasizes collaboration among stakeholders for a resilient system. Producers bear ultimate for consumer safety. The WTO proposes the following solutions to combat and reduce food fraud:

  • Vulnerability Assessments
  • Mitigation Plans  
  • Testing  
  • Supply Chain Management  
  • Governance and Risk Systems  
  • and Technology  
  • Collaboration  

To read more extensively about WTO plans and collaboration to combat food fraud, read the full report here.  

iMIS Food Updates  

iMIS Food is an example of how data and technology can assist in food fraud prevention. This knowledge-driven platform is designed for Food Safety Assurance, enabling food businesses to independently manage their Food Safety. The platform assists companies in demonstrating compliance with Food Safety, EU Food legislation, and standards. System enhancements are rolled out through “iMIS Food ”. 

iMIS Food Updates is a valid tool against food fraud as it keeps you informed about:   

  • Food Safety Hazards overview, library, and updates 
  • Food Fraud overview, library, and updates 
  • EU Legislation overview, library, and updates 
  • Food Safety Standards overview, library, and updates 
  • Food Training material and updates 
  • iMIS Food generic overview, library, and updates 
iMIS Food Updates Download


World Trade Organization. (2024). Illicit trade in food and food fraud. https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/itfff_e.htm 

TwitterFacebookLinkedInPin It

Related articles to How to Fight Food Fraud - The WTO's Expert Guide

Many customers and visitors to this page 'How to Fight Food Fraud - The WTO's Expert Guide' also viewed the articles and manuals listed below:

We are a Food Tech firm in Food Safety Compliance. Experts in setting up and maintaining Food Safety Systems for companies in the Food Supply Chain. We are dedicated to breaking down the barriers for Transparency and Trust in the Global Food Supply Chain.
In our Partnership Program we would like to work together with (Non)Governmental Organizations, Universities, Multinationals and Food companies.

iMIS Food is a fully equipped Food Safety Compliance platform. Unique is the installation of an iMIS Food server at the Food company, for online and offline availability. The online (no travel costs) iMIS Food implementation process includes 6 to 10 days of support and has a lead time of 3 months.

Monthly iMIS Food Update

Would you also like to receive the monthly iMIS Food Update and be invited to our events? Then please fill in this form.

Food Safety news 6-2024

The Global Food Safety Resource (GFSR)

GFSR is a global food safety resource provide information and training on food safety trends, regulatory compliance, industry standards, and more.

Innovation in agri-food chains Asia and the Pacific

The article examines innovation taking place along the entire food supply chain, including production, manufacturing, and retailing.

The trend of freelance auditors in certification

The following page, describes the experience of working with some freelance auditors that could be potential wolfs in the food industry.