Food Fraud

The infinite pervasiveness of food fraud

The pervasiveness of food fraud is almost infinite – and needs a continuing public-private partnership approach to tackle it, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists. It is a food protection threat that has not been clearly defined or addressed but can ultimately be a real public health vulnerability.

When the FBI dubbed counterfeiting “the crime of the century” they weren’t just talking about Prada handbags and Rolex watches. The counterfeit food industry is worth about $49 billion a year, according to the World Customs Institute, and it involves everything from fine food to boxed fruit juice.

“Products are moving around the world so fast now that there is just ample opportunity,” says John Spink, one of the authors and a food-fraud expert at Michigan State University. “And the demand for inexpensive food virtually guarantees that the problem will persist and grow.”

The authors from Michigan State University explain that food fraud can be defined as an intentional act for economic gain. This differs from a food safety incident involving unintentional act with unintentional harm, and a food defense incident characterized as a deliberate focus on intentional harm.

To further clarify, food fraud is a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.

Examples include melamine added to milk to boost the apparent protein content but are dangerous to consume over periods of time, salvaging dropped fruit that is bruised and subsequently contaminated with E. coli, and substituting less costly species of fish and misrepresenting them as more expensive species which may be toxic or cause allergic reactions. These types of food fraud ultimately pose risks to the consuming public.

The authors also write that food fraud could potentially be more dangerous than traditional food safety risks, since adulterants are typically unconventional and the current intervention and response systems are not looking for these contaminants.

As food products become more exotic and niche-oriented, the potential for food fraud increases. For example, how do you know that expensive sheep’s milk cheese wasn’t really made with cow’s milk? Or honey not aldulterated with corn syrup or with cheap Chinese honey?

The Washington Post reports a Virginia man was convicted last year of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. He sold the fish to national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, who passed it on to unsuspecting consumers.

The authors call for additional research on the risk associated with food fraud while also citing the need to support a continued public-private partnership approach to countering food fraud.

Source: Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)

Spink, J. and Moyer, D. C. (2011), Defining the Public Health Threat of Food Fraud. Journal of Food Science, 76: R157–R163. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02417.x

Additional reading: The Fake Food Detectives

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee by Bee Wilson

SwindledBad food has a history. Swindled tells it. Through a fascinating mixture of cultural and scientific history, food politics, and culinary detective work, Bee Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and even poisoned our food throughout history.

In the hands of people and corporations who have prized profits above the health of consumers, food and drink have been tampered with in often horrifying ways – padded, diluted, contaminated, substituted, mislabeled, misnamed, or otherwise faked. Swindled gives a panoramic view of this history, from the leaded wine of the ancient Romans to today’s food frauds – such as fake organics and the scandal of Chinese babies being fed bogus milk powder.

Wilson pays special attention to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and England and their roles in developing both industrial-scale food adulteration and the scientific ability to combat it. As Swindled reveals, modern science has both helped and hindered food fraudsters–increasing the sophistication of scams but also the means to detect them.