Cheap peanut oil marketed as extra virgin olive oil. Melamine in milk. White tuna sushi that’s actually escolar, a toxic fish that’s banned in Japan. Food fraud is more common than most people think!
Food fraud is the intentional mislabeling of a food product, usually for the purpose of economic gain. This can happen in a variety of ways. Products could be misbranded, substituted for other products, or contain unapproved additives. Products may also be misrepresented: for example, cheap Greek olive oil could be passed off as pricey Italian olive oil, and grain-fed Angus beef might be passed off as grass-fed.
In 2013, the top ten most adulterated foods in the United States were: (1) olive oil, (2) milk, (3) honey, (4) saffron, (5) orange juice, (6) coffee, (7) apple juice, (8) grape wine, (9 tie) vanilla extract, and (9 tie) maple syrup.
Food fraud costs the global food industry an estimated $40 billion per year. Adulterated meat could cause ethical and religious concerns for consumers (i.e. if “beef” contains unlabeled horsemeat or pork). In many cases, unlabeled allergens and harmful additives can have serious health implications. In 2007, melamine-infested wheat from China resulted in the illnesses and deaths of thousands of pets in the US. In addition, this wheat made its way into US animal feed, and around 2.5 – 3 million people consumed chickens that had eaten the contaminated feed.
And of course, if food fraud is discovered in your restaurant or grocery store, it could permanently damage your brand’s reputation.
For sure, preventing food fraud is complicated. The best way to protect your customers and your business is to only buy from trusted manufacturers. Your suppliers should have clear, transparent documentation for the entire supply chain, and they should conduct regular DNA tests to certify that their products have not been tampered with. Traceability and barcode technology have improved substantially over the years, so verifying this data is becoming easier.
If possible, products should also be confirmed by third-party inspectors. Examples include True Cheese for the cheese industry and True Honey for the honey industry. Be aware that not all food industries have third-party inspection agencies, nor are all of these tests completely accurate. For example, the True Honey test will correctly identify authentic raw honey, but may fail on processed honey even if it’s authentic.
Be especially vigilant when there’s a known shortage or price increase of a product; some manufacturers may resort to cheap substitutions in order to maintain profits.
Some restaurants are guilty of purposely misrepresenting their food for profit. If you’re an employee, talk to upper management about ensuring food integrity. And if you see something suspicious, report it. It’s up to everyone to work together and ensure that food safety is a priority.