Do you actually know what's for dinner tonight? We are all victims of food fraud
Although there are systems in place to ensure our food is safe to eat, all too often it feels as though the onus is placed on consumers to safely navigate grocery store aisles
The scale was staggering: more than 300,000 babies sickened and 54,000 hospitalized. Kidney damage claimed six young lives. Upwards of 80 per cent of the victims were just two years old or younger.
The culprit? Tainted milk.
The victims of the 2008 Chinese milk scandal didn’t fall prey to inadvertent contamination but rather deliberate deception for profit. In total, 22 companies were implicated in adulterating milk powder in China, including infant formula, with melamine. Used in industrial plastics, flooring and countertops, melamine is the toxin of choice when it comes to inexpensively bumping up the protein concentration of diluted dairy products.
A decade later, the suffering continues as many of the affected children still contend with kidney dialysis and surgeries. Today, roughly nine in 10 Chinese consumers buy organic infant formula. The wrongdoing has instilled a deep distrust of not just locally produced milk powder, but also the integrity of food safeguards as a whole.
This is the power of food fraud: the addition, adulteration, misrepresentation or substitution of food for profit compromises health and rocks faith in supply systems. It puts an estimated US$30 to $40 billion each year in the hands of scammers instead of reputable producers. It cheats consumers and damages brand reputations. And although there are systems in place to ensure our food is safe to eat, all too often it feels as though the onus is placed on consumers to safely navigate grocery store aisles.
“We’ve all been victims of food fraud, whether we realize it or not,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “There are two layers to the food fraud problem. One is the socio-economics of food, basically seeing many companies selling food at a lower price. And secondly, public health: (if you) buy a product and in that product there are (unlisted) ingredients you’re allergic to… that’s a problem. Food fraud could kill people.”
The addition, adulteration, misrepresentation or substitution of food for profit compromises health and rocks faith in supply systems.
Food supply systems are exceedingly complex, and as such, rife with opportunities for fraud to flourish. Consider one of the most mundane fast-food menu items: the cheeseburger. Every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica, has a hand in putting together the seemingly simple sandwich. Comprised of more than 50 components, the number of countries involved in its production is staggering; it takes ingredients from 14 different nations just to make a vinegar for the burger’s sauce.
Deception could happen at any point in this interdependent system with each country involved having different regulations and standards. It’s the multifaceted structure of the global food supply chain that allows fraud to occur, and the fact that it’s clouded from view makes it extremely difficult to monitor. What isn’t difficult to detect is the motivation. According to a Michigan State University study, which was published in the January 2017 issue of Food Control, a single shipment of falsified food can mean tens of thousands of dollars in illicit profit.
For as long as cheats have been in action — tinting vegetables with copper in the 19th century or diluting milk with chalk or plaster in the Middle Ages — the list of vulnerable products has grown equally exhaustive. From horsemeat masquerading as beef in what The Guardian called “the biggest food fraud of the 21st century” to escolar (a.k.a. “Ex-Lax fish”) commonly standing in for butterfish and white tuna, and paprika and chili powders contaminated with prohibited Sudan dye to enhance their red colour, fraudulent food practices have been honed over millennia.
“When we started to look and track how far back we could find evidence of food fraud, we got back about 2,000 years and then we thought, that’s probably far enough to say as long as food has been consumed, somebody has tried to cheat it,” says Chris Elliott, professor of food safety at Queen’s University Belfast.
The potential for fraud lies in every single food on the market. To illustrate this point, Elliott plays a game with his students: they name a food and if he can’t counter with an associated fraud within 15 seconds, they’re rewarded with no coursework for the entire semester. He’s never been beaten.
Food fraud could kill people.
Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University
When he’s not educating students on the pervasiveness of food fraud, Elliott conducts large-scale international research into better ways of both detecting and deterring it. Driven by the remarkable ingenuity of fraudsters, he and his team of analytical scientists are in a constant game of cat and mouse. He founded the Institute for Global Food Security as an attempt to get one step ahead. It’s here that researchers perform predictive analytics to identify the major threats in food and beverage safety. Elliott brings up the 2013 European horsemeat scandal — into which he led the U.K. government’s independent inquiry — and uses Tesco as an example of how food fraud can occur. The multinational retailer purchases 9,000 different ingredients, he says. How does it determine which of the thousands are most vulnerable to fraud?
In narrowing down the search, Elliott and his team examine at what point fraud is most likely to happen: is a particular ingredient easy or onerous to adulterate? They also look at factors such as crop failures around the world, commodities experiencing deviations in supply and demand, and the complexity of supply chains, all of which drive fakery. Herbs and spices, for example, are extremely high-value commodities with convoluted supply chains. Saffron is more expensive by weight than gold; vanilla is more valuable than silver. For the enterprising scammer, the sector is ripe for a swindle.
“We’ve come up with our own formula, our own algorithms and from that we can predict what the top five or 10 food commodities or food ingredients are to fraud. And we distribute that to some of the companies that we work with and that allows them to focus and target their resources on their biggest vulnerabilities,” he says.
The extent of the issue hit home recently with an Oceana Canada report, which revealed just how widespread seafood fraud is in this country. The advocacy group conducted DNA testing on nearly 400 seafood specimens from roughly 200 restaurants and food retailers in five Canadian cities (Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax). Almost half of the seafood was mislabelled. Oceana Canada found cheaper species, such as haddock ($39.88 per kg) being substituted for more expensive halibut ($74.77 per kg) and Atlantic salmon ($37.66 per kg) passed off as sockeye ($101.69 per kg). But beyond the literal and figurative bait and switch, seafood fraud poses a food safety issue and puts pressure on already threatened or endangered species.
More than half of the substituted fish species “could have potential health consequences for consumers,” Oceana Canada said. For example, the aforementioned escolar, “laxative of the sea,” can cause serious gastrointestinal distress. All of the Canadian samples labelled butterfish and 10 of the 15 white tuna specimens were actually escolar.
It’s the multifaceted structure of the global food supply chain that allows fraud to occur.
With anywhere from five to seven steps in the supply chain, which is “significantly longer than any other type of food,” says Julia Levin, Oceana Canada’s chief seafood fraud campaigner, seafood is an excellent example of the lack of transparency that exists in food systems. Without full chain traceability, figuring out where or when the fraud occurred, and who should be held responsible, is an arduous (if not impossible) task. “There are some studies that have been done and they have found it at every stage of the supply chain,” adds Levin. “Obviously we see more mislabelling once the fish has been processed. If it’s a whole fish, it has its morphological features: it has its skin; it has its fins. So if you recognize fish, if you work with fish, you can identify the species by looking at it. But once it becomes a fillet or once the skin is taken off, it becomes a whole lot easier to mislabel it.”
Levin’s explanation reveals an inconvenient truth when it comes to food fraud: it can be highly sophisticated. Elliott describes a recent example of an especially inventive deceit in which tuna unfit for human consumption was adulterated to give it the appearance of market-ready fish. “Old tuna gets very, very discoloured. It turns a dirty brown colour whereas when you go in to buy tuna, it has to be that nice pink colour. And what they found out was, by pumping it full of chemicals called nitrates and then blasting carbon monoxide over the fish, they were able to get that lovely, lovely, rosy pink colour back again,” says Elliott. “To me, that’s pretty good chemistry; that’s good science, and I have to tell you, it’s incredibly difficult to differentiate tuna that is very old and has been regenerated versus fresh tuna.”
In its seafood fraud report, Oceana Canada calls for boat-to-plate traceability, and uses the EU as an example of how more stringent regulatory requirements – including catch documentation and a carding system where countries are held responsible for policing their own supply chains – can have a positive impact. (Mislabelling fell from approximately 23 per cent in 2011 to seven per cent after 2014.) Last year, the U.S. implemented boat-to-border traceability in response to seafood fraud, which requires the importer to provide information including gear type, species and name, when and where the fish was caught, and proof of chain of custody. “They have all the right traceability requirements, but it stops at the border. So once seafood enters into the domestic commerce supply chain that information is lost, which is very problematic,” says Levin. “Mislabelling does happen once products have entered a country’s market as well as before. But it is a good first step because at least to the border level they’re requiring boat-to-border traceability. So it’s still better than what we have.”
According to Aline Dimitri, deputy chief food safety officer at the Canadian Food Inspection Authority (CFIA), the agency has been conducting authenticity testing and labelling reviews for many years, and while food fraud is “not a novel issue” for them, neither is it “extremely prevalent.” The CFIA relies on a combination of historic data, intelligence, surveillance, environmental scanning and customer complaints to determine its priorities. According to Dimitri, fewer than three per cent of the grievances the agency receives are related to food authenticity.
Without full chain traceability, figuring out where or when the fraud occurred, and who should be held responsible, is an arduous (if not impossible) task.
However, if consumers are unaware that something like species substitution in fish is an issue, they’re unlikely to make that association and file a complaint should illness occur. Health impacts and other ramifications of food fraud can’t be quantified or investigated if people aren’t reporting them. Fraud is rooted in perceived opportunity: the ability to deceive without being caught. The fact that an act of deception goes undetected means the trickster was successful; not that it didn’t happen.
“I read the same things that come from different regulatory authorities right across the world and they say, ‘We have no evidence this is going on.’ Well, I will tell you, wherever I look in the world for fraud in the food system, I find it. Everywhere. So the harder you look, the more likely you are to find problems,” says Elliott. “And I think one of the problems with regulators (is) they’re very scared to look because they’ll find problems and then the next thing is, if you find a problem, then we’ve got to deal with it.”
Elliott draws a parallel between buying food and filling a prescription or boarding an airliner. People don’t ponder whether or not their prescription drugs are counterfeit or if the plane they’re boarding has been repaired with unapproved aircraft parts because there are measures in place to prevent these things from happening.
Enhanced traceability is integral to lifting the shroud of secrecy that covers food supply systems. On January 15, 2019, new food safety regulations are coming into effect in Canada. Dubbed the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR), the legislation will affect suppliers, importers and exporters. One key pillar of the rules is “one forward and one back” traceability, which Dimitri describes as “the internationally recognized standard.”
Under the new regulations, every food business will be required to keep records of who it bought a given product from and when, and who it sold it to (with the exception of retailers, which won’t need to retain records of consumers). This also applies to importers, which Dimitri highlights as an important change. “The importer has a responsibility to ensure that whatever is coming into Canada meets Canadian law. That was not the case in the past,” she says. “It’s a shift that will ensure that we are closing the gap of perception that imported products are not as safe as domestic products. So we are making sure that there’s no ambiguity on this and importers are just as responsible as domestic producers to make sure that the food that’s coming into Canada is safe.”
Health impacts and other ramifications of food fraud can’t be quantified or investigated if people aren’t reporting them.
This new traceability component will allow the CFIA to conduct investigations and recall items more quickly, Dimitri adds, because that information will be readily available and consistent across the industry. While it’s a “solid step” in the right direction, as Charlebois puts it, does the agency’s “one forward and one back” approach to traceability go far enough?
“Absolutely not,” says Elliott. “We’ve had ‘one step forward, one step back’ in Europe for more than a decade, probably 15, 16 years and it is not good enough. It is absolutely not. You need full traceability; full transparency over supply chains. Quite often, whenever a problem happens and you start to apply this ‘one step forward, one step back,’ it can take you weeks and weeks and weeks to actually map out where something came from along supply chains. It doesn’t need to be that way.”
In today’s digital era, many supply chains remain mired in manual processes. When an incident arises – be it an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce or frozen beefburgers cut with undeclared horsemeat – tracking down the source of the issue can be time-consuming. And when lives are on the line, time is undoubtedly of the essence. Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, recently announced that it’s adopting a voluntary technological solution to traceability in leafy greens: blockchain. “Walmart believes the current one step up and one step back model of food traceability is outdated for the 21st century and that by, working together, we can do better,” the retail giant wrote in a letter to leafy greens suppliers announcing the change in traceability practices. Could a similar approach be the answer for minimizing food fraud?
In this case, the buzzword refers to fully digitizing the food supply chain process, making it trackable and unambiguous. Using the same technology that underpins Bitcoin, the path from primary production to consumer would be mapped completely. Rather than a linear, one step at a time path of accountability, digitized transparency means that all parties have access to the same information at all times.
Elliott, who has been working on blockchain for several years, says that the technology is essentially “a very nice database.” Like all databases, it’s as useful as the information entered into it; blockchain, in and of itself, won’t stop fraud but it could be one of the tools industry uses in combating it.
Linking a breach to an untrustworthy supplier can degrade brand equity and strike a blow to the bottom line.
With regulators largely taking an ad hoc approach to food fraud, industry has stepped up; pursuing ways to proactively fill the void, and with very good reason. As we see with Walmart, companies have a vested interest in food fraud prevention. Linking a breach to an untrustworthy supplier can degrade brand equity and strike a blow to the bottom line. “One up, one back” traceability is slow, costly and can contribute to already colossal levels of food waste as products are pulled off shelves. Mapping food systems is an intuitive solution; one that 12 of the world’s largest companies (including Dole, Nestlé and Walmart) are already banking on, according to The Wall Street Journal. The potential of blockchain to counter food fraud and enable better food recalls has become a hot topic in the industry, with leaders in the space pressuring the entire supply chain to comply. “More and more consumers are aware that there is a problem and that’s why there’s some momentum around blockchain technologies. Especially with retailers, because they do want to make sure that whatever they’re selling is authentic,” says Charlebois.
While the potential impact of implementing such systems offers hope in the fight against food fraud, it also requires collaboration. “What we’re seeing right now is that industry is taking advantage of technologies and so they should. I commend industry for taking the lead on implementing these types of tools because it will help them make sure that they are providing their clients with safe products, which is absolutely an integral part of their responsibility as a food industry,” says Dimitri. “If they choose to go beyond (one step forward, one step back) or to use a new technological tool to do that, that is something that we would be very pleased with because that is the essence of why our regulations are written the way they are. And they don’t mandate a single way of doing business. What they mandate is what is the ultimate result for the Canadian, which is a safe product on their shelf.”
While industry continues to explore the viability of modern, real-time solutions and the CFIA prepares to implement the most rudimentary of measures, what are consumers to do in the meantime? If you’re ever in doubt, report the incident to the CFIA so they can gather evidence relating to the company, Charlebois suggests: “Food fraud actually concerns everyone and it’s such a broad problem that without the participation of the public, it becomes very difficult to resolve. The more consumers are engaged with this issue, the better.”
Experts agree that there are preventative actions we can take: recognizing that if the price is unbelievably low, the food is probably fraudulent; purchasing the whole food rather than processed (e.g. whole fish, and unground coffee beans and spices); buying from reputable grocers; or supporting companies that have willingly implemented traceability systems. But ultimately, promoting these acts as a solution to such a byzantine issue is somewhat naive.
A fix to food fraud requires “a strong regulator working with a strong industry together in partnership,” Elliott says. From a consumer perspective, lifting the veil on the issue has the power to be the most transformative. With increased awareness comes contemplation: when you’re dining on all-you-can-eat sushi for $10.95 or buying a litre of extra virgin olive oil for $6.50, can you reasonably expect it to be authentic? “There are reasons (for that low price), and so people are being invited to ask themselves questions about what’s actually going on out there, as consumers. And that’s putting pressure on industry and businesses for sure,” says Charlebois.
Consumer awareness is a strong driver for change but the best model, Elliott says, is China. In the fallout of the milk scandal, China now has some of the strictest food safety regulations in the world. And the direction has come from the upper echelons of government: the president has made it one of the top priorities of the country. In the U.K., in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, industry has been leading the reform. “We’re pretty fraud-aware now and that was all triggered by the horsemeat scandal. That was something that could have come and gone quite quickly, but the media picked it up and then it became a really big news story here,” he says.
In both instances, it took a tragedy to spur meaningful change. As our food systems have evolved to become increasingly intertwined and interdependent, so too should our means of traceability and information exchange. With the technologies at our disposal, there’s no valid argument for adhering to antiquated means of identifying and investigating food fraud. Considering the scale of the horsemeat and milk scandals alone should be enough to impress the immense risk it presents and the need for complete transparency.