Food fraud isn’t just an economic issue; it can also lead to health problems.
Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) occurs when a valuable ingredient or part of a food is intentionally left out, removed, or substituted. EMA can also occur when a substance is added to a food to make it appear better or more valuable. For example, when manufacturers mix a less expensive vegetable oil with an expensive olive oil and sell the product as 100% olive oil, they deceive their customers. This type of EMA is called food fraud (Picture 1). Food fraud is the most common type of EMA that the FDA deals with, but EMA can also occur with other products such as animal food and cosmetics. Some types of EMA also constitute misbranding violations. Food fraud is difficult to quantify because it is designed to avoid detection. Experts estimate that food fraud affects 1% of the global food industry and costs $10-$15 billion per year, though some more recent studies; estimates put the cost as high as $40 billion per year. Some of the most common food frauds are honey and maple syrup, olive oil, seafood, juice, spices and herbs (1).
Picture 1: Food Fraud (2)
Aside from the commonly reported cases of food fraud and adulteration in honey, olive oil, and herbs/spices, numerous incidents in recent years have posed serious health risks or even caused death to consumers. The following are some high-profile examples of past food fraud cases:
Formula for Infants
Scientists can estimate the amount of protein in a food by looking at how much nitrogen is present. In 2008, Chinese manufacturers added melamine (a synthetic chemical with a high nitrogen content that is commonly used in plastics) to infant formula to make it appear to have enough protein. As a consequence of this, infants suffered from kidney failure, and media coverage stated that the deceitful act led to more than 300,000 cases of sickness, 50,000 hospital admissions, and a minimum of six fatalities (1). The highest levels of contamination were found in milk powder from China’s State-owned, largest milk powder manufacturer and budget segment market leader. However, it was not the only corporation involved. Despite official Chinese notification in September 2008 that all contaminated products had been destroyed, and subsequent international import bans on Chinese milk and infant formula, there is evidence that melamine-contaminated milk had silently reached the African continent. Three (6%) of 49 representative branded and black market milk powder samples collected in the East African port city of Dar-es-Salaam between October 23rd and December 17th, 2008, contained measurable concentrations of melamine ranging from 0.5 to 5.5 mg/kg milk powder. Surprisingly, these positive samples were internationally branded milk powders, which may reflect multinational milk powder product manufacturers’ global purchasing practices (14).
From 2008 to 2012, some people reported a bitter metallic taste (“pine mouth”) after they ate pine nuts. This tastes sometimes lasted for weeks (10). According to an international investigation, some manufacturers substituted a non-food species of pine nuts for more expensive edible pine nut species.
Irish horsemeat scandal
The horsemeat scandal occurred when horse meat was incorrectly entered as beef into the supply chain in 2013. Once in the supply chain, the horsemeat ended up in a variety of products sold in the United Kingdom. The scandal was first identified in Ireland and spread throughout Europe and beyond. The horsemeat scandal infiltrated numerous supply chains and resulted in the recall of millions of products across Europe, costing businesses millions of pounds. The scandal changed the way we look at food safety in the European Union and perhaps globally. Food safety and quality standards in the industry have been upgraded, and businesses must now have food-fraud vulnerability assessments and fraud mitigation plans in place. Risk assessments and traceability audits are part of the supplier approval procedures. In most large food companies, routine surveillance involving authenticity testing is now the norm. Following the Horsegate, major retailers now conduct unannounced audits of their suppliers to ensure that the food they purchase is authentic and labelled correctly (11).
The Food Standards Agency Ireland (FSAI) tested a variety of frozen foods in December 2012. As the tests revealed that the samples contained unknown DNA, they were retested for bovine (cow), porcine (pig), and equine (horse) DNA. Over a third of the products contained equine DNA, and 85% of the total products contained pig DNA, according to the results. The FSAI released their findings in January 2013, and the horsemeat scandal spread throughout the industry in the weeks that followed. One of the issues raised by the scandal was the supply chain’s vulnerability to food crime. Following the FSAI’s findings, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom and the European Commission encouraged the beef industry to test all of its beef products for horse meat. These tests revealed that the “beef” in frozen lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese produced by a French manufacturer was up to 100% horse. Some of the biggest UK supermarkets all received products from the French company. The investigations into how horsemeat came to be in certain foods then expanded across Europe (15).
Horsemeat in beef burgers shocked the Irish and European meat industry a decade ago, but the story has a much longer history. Ironically, the chicaneries of January 2013 were predicted six decades earlier by Tom Walsh, the then-Minister of Agriculture. In the early 1950s, Walsh resisted calls from animal rights activists for a ban on live horse exports to the Continent. An international non-profit organization about animal welfare argued that shipping 25,000 horses to slaughter in Belgium and France was cruel, and they advocated for the establishment of horse slaughter plants in Ireland. Walsh, on the other hand, refused to grant licences for such plants, claiming that the development of horse slaughter plants increased the risk of food fraud by creating a situation in which horsemeat could be passed off as beef. If this occurred, he claimed, it would jeopardise Ireland’s position as an “exporter of high-quality beef and mutton” (16). And he was correct as history has proven.
Food fraud is an age-old problem that reoccurs on a regular basis in food supply chains and is unlikely to be completely eradicated. Since the 2013 global issue of the fraudulent substitution of horsemeat in beef products, there has been global agreement that, in addition to being better at detecting food fraud, more needs to be done to prevent food fraud from occurring in the first place (12). A risk management expert has suggested that food technologists should start thinking like criminals if they want to identify illegal activities in their supply chains that could lead to serious food safety incidents (13).
- Brooks, C. at al. 2021 A review of food fraud and food authenticity across the food supply chain, with an examination of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit on food industry. Food Control, Vol. 130, 108171.
- Suhana S. et al, 2018 Adulterated honey consumption can induce obesity, increase blood glucose level and demonstrate toxicity effects. UKM, Sains Malaysiana, 47 (2). pp. 353-365. ISSN 0126-6039