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Selling Food Under Fake Labels

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Mischief in the food industry covers a wide range of sins. Mislabelling is one common offense— a company might claim a food is organic when it isn’t or sell a cheap cut of meat as a more expensive one. Some processed foods feature counterfeit labels similar to knock-off watches or designer clothing fakes. It gets more sinister when crooks contaminate food with toxic substances or "modify" expiration dates on labels.

Armies of food inspectors using sophisticated techniques such as DNA testing try to unmask the swindles, but even in rich and well-resourced countries, they are overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task. The problem is further complicated by the fact that many foods cross international boundaries on their journeys to consumers.

So, before we go stomping off to picket our supermarkets and restaurants, understand that they are also victims of food fraud. They try—but can’t possibly monitor every step in the journey from farm to table.

Food Scandals

In 2013, the people of Ireland were horrified to learn that one out of every three (37 percent) burgers they ate contained horse meat. In some cultures, eating horse meat is routine but this is not so in the Emerald Isle. There, being told you had just chowed down on minced Misty is likely to trigger a gag response.

Most people are not going to be grossed out to discover their olive oil has been bulked up with hazelnut oil. But Prevention magazine says "Researchers found that olive oil—yes, even the extra-virgin kind—is the most adulterated food . . . Other imposter ingredients include corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, palm oil, and walnut oil."

Consumers are going to be annoyed to find they’ve paid a premium price for a premium product that isn’t premium at all. However, without a sophisticated laboratory attached to their kitchens, they are unlikely to learn they've been cheated. So, where's the harm, some might say?

Sign outside a pub in England (this may account for the camera shake.)

Sign outside a pub in England (this may account for the camera shake.)

Food Fraud Is Big Business

The money involved in food fraud is big enough to attract the attention of organized crime. INTERPOL is on the case. Here’s a news release from the international police organization from March 2016: "More than 10,000 tonnes and one million litres of hazardous fake food and drink have been seized in operations across 57 countries in an INTERPOL-Europol coordinated initiative to protect public health and safety."

And, what did they find in this massive swoop?

  • Fertilizer in sugar in Sudan;
  • Olives coated in copper sulphate to enhance the colour in Italy;
  • Illicit and fake alcohol in Greece, the United Kingdom, Burundi, and elsewhere;
  • Monkey meat in Belgium;
  • Adulterated honey in Australia; and
  • Chicken guts preserved in formalin in Indonesia.
Olive oil is one of the most likely food products to be adulterated. Often, cheap oil is coloured with a green dye.

Olive oil is one of the most likely food products to be adulterated. Often, cheap oil is coloured with a green dye.

The Institute for Global Food Security says the Italian Mafia is raking in profits from the olive and high-end cheese trade. The Central America drug cartels are buying low-grade food and, through the miracle of relabelling, turning it into high-grade, high-priced products on supermarket shelves.

The Danger of Adulterated Food

INTERPOL has found peanuts mislabeled as pine nuts. Most of us know that the consequence for some people with severe allergic reactions to peanuts can be sudden death.

The conservation group Oceana has been looking into fish labeling in New York City. They’ve found mislabelling in 39 percent of samples. And, it’s not just someone trying to pass off inexpensive tilapia as more costly red snapper. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention has found a fish called escolar mislabelled as white tuna. Escolar is banned in Japan and Italy because it can cause food poisoning. And, reports The Globe and Mail, "In the United States, people have been hospitalized after eating what they thought was monkfish, but turned out to be the toxic pufferfish."

Herbs and spices are also being tampered with. Brent Bambury of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation writes that "Criminals will add industrial dyes to brighten the colours, which makes them appear more attractive. But the dyes are often poisonous." So, tonight’s dinner? I think maybe a glass of water and a lightly poached caraway seed.

Is that red snapper above or below? Which one is tilapia? Once fileted it is hard to tell one fish from another. Answer below.

Tilapia is the top image and red snapper the bottom one.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2008, Chinese milk powder producers were discovered to have been adding melamine to their product to boost its protein content in tests. As a result, 300,000 babies became ill, 54,000 were hospitalized, and 11 died. Two people at the centre of the scandal, Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, were executed in November 2009.
  • Chris Elliott is the founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast. He estimates the world grocery business is worth nearly $12 trillion a year.
  • According to the Food Fraud Database the ten most likely foods to be tampered with in some way are, in order: orange juice, honey, truffle oil, blueberries, milk, fish, saffron, olive oil, pomegranate juice, and coffee.

Sources

  • “Consumer Product Fraud: Deterrence and Detection.” Grocery Manufacturers Association, 2010.
  • “The Big Cash in Counterfeit Food: Why You Might Not Be Eating What You Think You’re Eating.” Brent Bambury, Day 6, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, April 1, 2016.
  • “11 Most Fraudulent Foods.” Mandy Oaklander, Prevention, January 25, 2013.
  • “Largest-Ever Seizures of Fake Food and Drink in INTERPOL-Europol Operation.” INTERPOL News Release, March 30, 2016.
  • Food Fraud Database.
  • “Food Fraud: 10 Counterfeit Products We Commonly Consume.” Melissa Breyer, Mother Nature Network, April 4, 2013.
  • “Food Fraud: How Do We Fight a Problem We Don’t Yet Understand?” Ann Hui, Globe and Mail, July 26, 2016.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor