How would you feel if you were to find out that the extra virgin olive oil you paid top dollar for wasn’t nearly as pure as advertised? Would this lessen your faith in food authorities and leave you feeling violated, robbed and deceived?
A 2010 study by the University of California, Davis, revealed that 69% of consumers who purchase extra virgin olive oil have this exact experience without ever knowing. The researchers found that many samples of top brands had objectionable sensory attributes such as “rancidity” and “fustiness” among other issues. These consumers were all victims of an issue known as “food fraud”.
What is Food Fraud?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), food fraud occurs when a food supplier intentionally decides to deceive customers about the quality or content of the food they are purchasing—usually with the objective of economic gain. Food fraud can take many different forms:
These six types of food fraud are most likely to occur with certain types of food products. Data shows that the most high risk foods consumers should be aware of include: fish, seafood, dairy products, meat products, alcoholic beverages, oils and fats. We know Trinidad and Tobago is affected by this issue since there was an inquiry into food fraud undertaken by a Joint Select committee on Finance and Legal Affairs in 2017.
Who is Affected by Food Fraud
Anyone can be a victim of food fraud and it can sometimes have devastating consequences. Consumers of olive oil face an immense food safety threat as some brands are often diluted with peanut oil. If a consumer has a peanut allergy and partakes in this type of adulterated olive oil, it could trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Last year in India, food fraud did prove deadly when almost 100 people died from consuming bootleg alcohol from backstreet distilleries. In instances like these, bootleggers often add methanol to mixtures to increase the alcoholic drink’s strength.
Another common case of food fraud is the fraudulent blending of food products with meats from undeclared species. This can be a serious problem for people with ethical or religious concerns regarding the consumption of meats like horse or pork.
These examples all bring to light the seriousness of food fraud and its repercussions for unsuspecting victims. The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global food supply has amplified many of these risks. Lockdowns, border closings and staff shortages have all been credited for contributing to an increase in cases of food fraud. The economic challenges posed by the pandemic increase demand for lower-priced food items which are generally more susceptible to food fraud.
Staying Safe from Food Fraud
Consumers who wish to protect themselves and their loved ones against food fraud need to be first and foremost aware of the different types of food fraud that exist and familiarise themselves with commonly fraudulent products. Remember, constant education is key to mitigation!
Beyond that, consumers can protect themselves against possible food fraud by purchasing from a reputable supplier. Looking out for certifications that offer product protection is key. This bears even more significance for consumers shopping online as the Internet is home to many non-reputable retailers. Another key top to remember—the price is not always right!
Consumers tend to encounter food fraud when purchasing ‘high quality’ items such as Parmesan cheese, olive oil or maple syrup. Knockoffs are likely to have price tags which may be too good to be true in comparison to authentic items. Additionally, some retailers import goods and repackage bulk items, which is an opportunity for food fraud, as is the case with repackaged flour mixed with chalk for example. Ensure that the unit package is properly labelled with information required to make an informed decision:
Lastly, it is less likely that you purchase fraudulent items if you purchase whole, unprocessed products. For example, choose a block of cheese rather than grated cheese or choose whole rather than ground spices when shopping. In a similar vein, the purchase of composite products, such as granola mix, pre-made burger patties or certain ready-to-eat meals have the potential for food fraud. It is up to us, the consumers, the buyers, to be more vigilant in the future when making food purchases to avoid a potential food fraud case. If you remember anything, remember the ‘4 Ps’ in order to avoid counterfeit products in the future:
Food Producers Must Fight Food Fraud
While food fraud is not a new issue to the food industry, recent advances in technology allow for issues to be detected more easily than in previous years. However, these technologies are expensive and require substantial investment. Such investment is generally done by the private sector in the food manufacturing industry rather than in the foodservice or public health sectors. This is a major reason that food fraud remains a widespread issue across many parts of the globe.
This can present challenges for smaller businesses and start-ups. A new business that fails to safeguard itself and its consumers against food fraud committed by its suppliers would likely have to shut down. This begs the question, how can a micro or small food producer or the average consumer not fall victim to food fraud?’ The answer is not a hard and fast rule, but rather, one of following the examples of commercial food producers and adopting the right practices to protect against food fraud.
For the micro and small food producers, the main way to protect against food fraud in your business is rigid supplier management. All of your inputs into your products and processes require liaising with suppliers. Food producers must ensure that they use suppliers that can provide necessary documentation, such as certificates of analyses, third party audit reports and certifications. This helps to reduce potential risks that are associated with raw materials and other inputs.
It is also important that food producers keep an ongoing working relationship with their suppliers so that transparency is maintained regarding the safety of purchases. It is critical that upon the receipt of raw materials, items are double-checked and documentation verified before signing off. Food producers can invest in rapid tests for certain raw materials that are received or request a sample of a raw material prior to shipping that can be evaluated before receiving a shipment. Food producers must also ensure that record-keeping is adhered to as a form of personal insurance in case a food fraud incident arises in the future.
Audits of the supplier’s facility should be considered when dealing with high-risk suppliers that offer products like meat and dairy. Food producers should be sure to include all suppliers in their supplier management programme, for all food products, packaging materials and services which can impact food safety.