From wood pulp found in grated Parmesan cheese, to garlic powder spiked with talc, to the recent massive case of adulterated or spoiled meat products from leading exporter Brazil, food fraud is a widespread problem and is garnering attention among consumers whose health could be put at risk.
Recent estimates put the cost of food fraud at around US$40 billion worldwide, according to research from Michigan State University. It includes everything from mislabelling the country of origin or using “organic” labels when the item is not organic, to changing expiry dates, counterfeiting products, and adulterating or substituting ingredients.
“A good fraudster is someone who technically hides very well his game,” said Samuel Godefroy, a leading expert in food risk analysis at Laval University. “We’re not supposed to discover the issue, but when it turns badly and when the fraud is done by people that have no scruples in what they are doing, it can even lead to tragic consequences.”
A case in point, he said, was the 2008 Chinese milk scandal where 300,000 people were made ill when melamine, a chemical used to produce plastic, was added to milk powder. The powder caused the deaths of four children.
Godefroy, who was a keynote speaker at an international food fraud conference held in Quebec City last week, noted that the food supply chain is becoming increasingly complex in today’s globalized world, with many middlemen and handlers from farm to plate. And countries like Canada and the United States need to step up measures to become more proactive rather than reactive, he said.
“An important measure is beefing up traceability measures. Food ingredients are sourced from all over the planet but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be the right traceability to prevent food fraud from occurring.”
Godefroy said the conference was a great opportunity for academics, government regulators, and industry to get together to increase focus on preventative measures.
Instead of reactive measures such as fines for fraudsters, he said there needs to be more resources for random checks of food samples to test food items such as olive oil, honey, and maple syrup, which have all been found to be adulterated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
They are among the 70 cases of food suppliers’ non-compliance with labelling laws on average per year in the last five years in Canada, which the agency publishes on its website. That number is low, however, compared to how widespread food fraud is.
Seafood substitution and mislabelling is common in many countries, including Canada and the United States. In Canada, a CBC Marketplace study found that 34 of 153 fish samples from grocery stores were mislabelled. Seafood substitution occurs when a lower-priced fish is labelled as a higher priced fish in order to sell the lower-priced fish for more.
New Technologies Helping
Leading food fraud experts and regulators are turning to new technologies to also combat food fraud. Blockchain technology is being applied to improve traceability and avoid counterfeiting food items. In Canada, Walmart and Loblaws are already putting such technology to use.
According to the CFIA, Canada is the world leader in DNA barcoding technology, which can be used to identify food fraud by testing exactly the makeup of the food item on a molecular level, whether it is organic, and its geographical origin.
Currently the DNA analysis technology is slow and costly, but according to Sylvain Charlebois, a leading researcher of food fraud at Dalhousie University, in the future Canadians could have access to affordable hand-held DNA analysis devices the size of smartphones to detect food fraud in the supermarket or at home.
“I think essentially you’re dealing with the future of food.” Charlebois said. “If you don’t have trust from the consumers, it becomes very difficult to add any value and grow the food business.”
Charlebois noted the University of Guelph is teaming up with the CFIA to work on making the DNA analysis technology more simple and cost-effective and eventually accessible to the public.
And this is important, he added, considering 63 percent of Canadians are worried the foods they’re buying are not what the labels are claiming, especially those with health conditions, according to an online survey conducted by a research team he led at Dalhousie.
Charlebois said that in developed countries like Canada, the food fraud that took place in Brazil—the largest exporter of meat products in the world—is less likely to happen because of the amount of corruption involved with Brazilian government regulators. He called it “one of the worst food fraud scandals in modern times.”
In the scandal, cheaper animal parts were substituted for more expensive ingredients or products, with suspicious odours disguised by using acid. In addition, it is alleged that health inspectors allowed expired meat to be sold, turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes.
But Charlebois added that more transparency within the CFIA would be helpful to inform the public more regarding its inspection process and results.
The CFIA, which also took part in the global food fraud conference, said consumers are starting to ask more questions and become more aware of food fraud, which is an important tool in fighting it. But it’s such a widespread issue that all players, from industry to government to academia, have to work together to mitigate food fraud.
“We have to remember the people conducting the fraud are interested in making money,” said Aline Dimitri, the CFIA’s deputy chief food safety officer.
“But sometimes it’s in ways that we haven’t anticipated so it’s important to exchange information and make sure all the players in the system have open channels of communication in order to address this critical issue.”
Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.