Food Fraud on US Dining Tables
If you have lived in developing countries, the notion of food being adulterated with poor quality, even harmful ingredients, is not uncommon. Given the global nature of food sourcing these days, there are no barriers to the growing scourge of food adulteration and fraud. According to Dr. John Spink, Assistant Professor and Associate Director, Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University (www.a-capp.msu.edu), food fraud is so widespread it touches the dinner plates of almost all Americans. Investigations have revealed adulteration in products as diverse as candy bars, tomato sauce and fish.
Spink defines food fraud (www.foodfraud.org) as the intentional substitution, misrepresentation, tampering with or addition of food ingredients or food packaging, for economic gain. These are often unconventional, poor quality, even harmful contaminants. In 2008, melamine was added to infant formula and pet food to falsify protein content, at the expense of consumer’s health and wellbeing. Other food fraud discoveries by Spink and colleagues was that lesser value seafood, and even leading brand name olive oil imports to the US, were being mislabeled as higher value products. Similarly, it comes as no surprise that meat stores, including your neighborhood ethnic butcher, often fraudulently label products as halal. In the USA, laws have been passed in several states against the fraudulent use of halal labels on meat products.
What makes food fraud hard to detect? “The bad guys are clandestine, stealthy, and actively seeking to avoid detection. They’re trying to dupe us. For many products, it is very difficult if not impossible to determine some attributes such as natural, sustainably harvested, any specialty treatment or country of origin,” says Spink.
Foodfraud.org, a database Spink and his colleagues have created, lists the most adulteration/fraud prone ingredients and foods. On the list are olive oil; coffee; apple and orange juice; saffron; honey adulterated with sugar; diluted fruit juice and corn syrup; and watered down milk.
In order to certify food, personal care products or nutritionals as halal, IFANCA certification involves the scrutiny of all ingredients, their sources and handling mechanisms at every stage of the manufacturing process. As far as fraud prevention is concerned that’s a good thing, according to Spink. “Third party audits can really help confirm the trust in a supplier. (They) are (a) key function in addition to ongoing market monitoring for fraudulent product, testing of incoming goods, and a general focus on reducing vulnerabilities,” he says.
“The actual scale is unknown or potentially unknowable… first there is no precise definition of fraud, second recordkeeping often is not in the same format, and finally we often are not able to detect that we have received or consumed a fraudulent product. Bad guys don’t submit annual reports of their production! That said…general product counterfeiting and product fraud estimates are 5-10% of world trade… (that’s) huge. Specifically, the UK estimated their “food related fraud” at “around 10%,”” says Spink. “Fortunately, the vast majority of food fraud incidents do not include a public health threat. The best way for consumers or companies to avoid food fraud is to work with trusted suppliers. In our family, we buy from retailers who have a vested interest in keeping us as repeat customers.”
About the Writer: Mujahed Khan is Assistant Editor with Halal Consumer magazine and Associate Instructor of Food Analysis and Quality Assurance with the Food and Nutrition Sciences Department at Dominican University, River Forest, IL.