Canada's Condominium Magazine

Fake olive oil, coffee, fish, honey on menu at international food fraud conference in Quebec

It’s almost embarrassing buying olive oil at the supermarket, especially the Italian brands. One feels one might as well send a money transfer directly to the Italian “agrimafia,” and the oil is so expensive to begin with. A couple of years ago, almost half of all extra-virgin olive oil brands produced in Italy were found to be tainted. Consumers in the US have just a 10 per cent chance of getting the real thing when they buy Italian extra-virgin olive oil.

Not surprising when it is estimated that 350,000 farmers and producers are involved in the fraud, earning about CDN$6.5 billion from theft and robbery. One estimate puts the value of false “made in Italy” food products at CDN$87 billion. Some of the ingredients added to the oil, like peanut or soy oil, are allergens, and peanuts can kill. But what can one do?

According to the European Union, among other bodies, olive oil is the most likely food product in the world to be sold fraudulently, and it has a lot of company; 10 per cent of all food products sold globally are likely to have been tampered with. That last comes from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

You may be consuming wood pulp in your Parmesan cheese; deadly mercury in a fish you thought was wholesome red snapper; melamine (in China) in powdered milk; horse meat in your beef burgers (especially if from Brazil); corn syrup in your honey; ground acorns with your coffee. There has even been baby food found mixed with chalk and cement. The environmental group Oceana found that 100 per cent—every single one sampled—of sushi restaurants in New York City served fake fish.

Not what it appears to be. An Oceana study found 100 per cent of sushi restaurants in New York City served fake fish.

Food fraud also extends to the drug business, both the licit and the illicit. A few years ago in the US, sixty-four people died in a fungal meningitis outbreak after receiving injections of a drug manufactured in Massachusetts. The head pharmacist was convicted just this week of fraud and racketeering, but despite the many deaths, he was not convicted of murder.

Most Canadians are evidently aware of the problem, broadly known as food fraud. A recent study done at Dalhousie University found that 74 per cent of respondents showed significant concern about the quality of the food they bought especially if it came from outside the country and if they had allergies or intolerances. A researcher said it was very difficult to prove criminal intent in food fraud cases, harder still to catch people in the act.

Can we as individuals do anything to stop it? Not much. Consumers can do little other than rely on the labels on the products they buy, and if those are false, where do we turn?  Traceability is becoming more of a demand among consumers, who want to see all ingredients listed and all sources of those ingredients, preferably provided by a third party. Inspection of all foods sold, whether produced domestically or imported, is simply impossible. In Canada, retailers like Loblaw and Costco require suppliers to subscribe to standardized food safety programs and undergo annual audits that are focused on both safety and quality.

Ultimately, only testing of the foods can reveal what is really in them.

Food Fraud incidents are reported on a daily basis in different parts of the world and are a constant challenge for the food industry sector, food regulators and consumers alike. Such incidents hurt consumers’ confidence in the integrity and authenticity of the food they purchase. They may even pose a public health threat, when adulteration of foods involves harmful substances. The modus operandi of the food fraudster is to continually change how fraud is perpetrated to evade detection and keep one step or more ahead of those trying to ensure the integrity of the global food supply system.

Next week in Quebec City, food regulators, academics, government and industry representatives will hold an international symposium on food fraud. The meeting will bring together senior regulators from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Commission, as well as key European food regulators from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, China and Australia. along with experts from academia and industry groups to discuss current knowledge, domestic and international experience related to early identification, prevention and management of food fraud incidents.

In a release about the event, organizers say that there have been recent developments in foresight, laboratory detection methods and management tools available to industry and regulators. These will be discussed with the intent to identify “gaps and opportunities” for collaboration. Food fraud may pose a public health risk, while the fraudsters manage to avoid detection by staying “one step or more ahead of those trying to ensure the integrity of the global food supply chain.”

It can’t hurt, we suppose, but somehow it seems the agrimafia will still come out on top.

Five most faked foods in the world

The Michigan State University Food Fraud Initiative list of the ten most adulterated foods in the world:

Olive oil

Australian olive oil producers are said to have the highest standards in the world. Taste is the best indicator of quality. Harvest date is important, as olives start to deteriorate when they are picked and should be consumed in less than a year. Find a reliable source of oil that can be trusted and stick with it. Buying direct from a producer is always the best option, but a little difficult for Canadians.

Look for the Parmigiana Reggiano name when buying this expensive cheese. Grated “parmesan” cheese has been found adulterated with everything from wood pulp to chalk.

Cheese

When shopping for expensive cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, look for the full name ( not just “Parmesan”), and the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) seal, which should say “Made in Italy.” For cheese in general, look at the ingredient listing. Actual cheese contains recognizable ingredients, and few of them. Geographically indicated cheeses, such as feta, Munster, and Gruyère, should only come from Greece, France, and Switzerland, respectively. These three cheeses are frequently faked.

One of the five most faked foods in the world, according to the Michigan State University Food Fraud Initiative. Best bet is to buy direct from a producer.

Honey

Honey is the third most faked food in the world, and the subject of the largest food fraud in U.S. history, an incident that netted US$80 million. Honey is commonly thinned with less expensive, but still edible, sweeteners, such as beet sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and cane sugar. To be sure you are buying real honey, avoid big supermarket brands and buy it from someone who makes it locally if you can. So-called manuka honey is said to be frequently faked.

Fish

Sushi is statistically the worst offender, but there is good reason to be dubious about seafood of almost every description, raw or cooked, shellfish or fin fish. Besides the 100 per cent fakery rate in New York City sushi restaurants, Oceana also found fraud in 58 per cent of retail outlets and 39 per cent of restaurants. To avoid being defrauded, buy wild caught if possible, though domestically farmed catfish and globally farmed mussels, oysters, and clams are safe. Big-box stores like Walmart and Costco are said to be safe because they have more leverage to hold producers and suppliers to a higher standard. In restaurants, avoid white tuna or red snapper, which are almost certainly fake.

Coffee

According to the Michigan State University FFI’s list, coffee is the fifth most faked product in the world, with a long history of fraud and adulteration. One way for consumers to avoid some forms of fraud is to buy whole beans and grind them themselves. This way they will get real coffee rather than coffee grounds cut with sawdust, ground acorns and roasted corn. They will not, however, know whether they have real Jamaican Blue Mountain beans that they paid $93.25 per pound for.

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