Modern supply chains bring exotic foods and local produce to our shelves all year round. In that climate, traceability has become one of the biggest problems for the food and drink industry today.

Now a team - led by our Professor of Accounting, Professor Lisa Jack - is tackling the issue with research that hopes to bring end-to-end transparency to the global food network. And in doing so, prevent fraud, improve food safety, and protect the integrity of supply chains.

Professor Jack admits that full traceability is not always cost effective. It is sometimes impossible, such as with commodities like spices, which brokers and agents buy from many small suppliers before selling in bulk.

Professor Jack said: ‘The question is: are we getting what we paid for? Traceability [should provide] assurance that the label is telling us truthfully what a product is, and where and who it comes from. My research aims to resolve the challenges of auditing that traceability.

'The problem is as much with processed foods and meats from Europe as distant countries. ‘Normal’ foods are more likely to have traceability issues than exotic foods. Even local produce can involve dozens of growers, manufacturers, and distributors. They create complex networks and enormous challenges of protecting food safety.

‘Simply identifying the supply chain provides protection against adulteration and other safety concerns. But, for example, how can you verify paperwork, e-systems, and labels? If a company couldn't tell you where a product came from, would you believe their sustainability or welfare claim?’

The economic environment in the food industry increases the risk of fraud. The profit margins are tiny, and making money on some products can be tough forcing them to cut corners.

Professor Lisa Jack, Professor of Accounting

Contaminated food leads to 400,000 deaths each year, and traceability is essential for find the contamination source. But Professor Jack believes that while the problem with food fraud and safety is important, the issue of economic fraud is too often ignored.

As part of her work, she is studying how big data analytics and machine learning could enhance traceability audits. If successful, the systems could help companies better uncover unethical practices in their supply chains.

And if there is a reform of traceability system, Professor Jack believes public trust will grow and a better economic environment will help the industry thrive:

'I want to discover why the economic environment in the food industry increases the risk of fraud. The profit margins are tiny, and making money on some products can be very tough forcing them to cut corners at times.

'Even spices might get cut with other things, and for extreme cases, you may find counterfeiting and adulteration. But why does this happen?

'Outside of the University of Portsmouth, very few are looking at this serious issue from an accounting and counter fraud point of view.'