The Dangerous Side of Food Fraud

By Karen Constable 

Food fraud occurs when food is used deceptively for economic gain, as such, food fraud is not typically committed with the primary intention of causing harm to consumers. The deception can take forms as diverse as the smuggling of goods across borders to avoid duties and tariffs; falsification of paperwork to misrepresent the special status of food, such as ‘organic’ or ‘kosher’; counterfeiting (copying) of food products by unauthorised manufacturers; switching of one fish species for another; or adding undeclared substances to foods. As these examples elucidate, and because many types of food fraud do not involve any changes to the food product itself, food fraud does not always pose direct risks to food safety.  

However, when food is adulterated or otherwise modified, processed or (re-)packed fraudulentlythe result is a product that presents significant risks to the health and well-being of the people who consume it. Food fraud perpetrators add materials such as colourants, water retention agents and non-approved preservatives to increase the selling price of the food or to extend its shelf life.  The outcomes for consumers can include acute chemical poisoning, allergen-mediated reactions, chronic poisoning and illnesses from pathogens introduced during the adulteration processes.   

The outcomes for consumers can include acute chemical poisoning, allergen-mediated reactions, chronic poisoning and illnesses.   

Food Fraud’s Real World Risks

Examples of food safety issues that have occurred due to adulteration include the addition of a dye made from batterchemicals to black pepper, the death of a child from dairy anaphylaxis after drinking adulterated coconut water, kidney damage to babies from melamine in baby formula and the sickening of consumers from milk diluted with dirty water.   

One alarming example of the health risks posed by food fraud can be found in turmeric, a spice usually famed for its health-giving properties.  A significant proportion of powdered turmeric traded worldwide has been found to contain unsafe levels of toxic lead chromate, added as a colour enhancer during the polishing process.  Lead has also been found in curry powder, cumin and cinnamon.  A recent survey of 50 spices from 41 countries found that more than 30% of the 1,496 samples contained lead in concentrations greater than 2 ppm, a level 200 times higher than the recommended maximum for candy in the USA.   

Food Safety Risks for Consumers

Beyond adulteration, other types of food fraud also pose food safety risks.  Examples include: 

  • Horse meat from sports horses that illegally entered the human food chain.  Sports horses are treated with veterinary drugs that can pose a risk to human health.   
  • The changing of expiry dates on seafood products to render expired products sellable.  
  • Manufacture of counterfeit food products in unlicensed and unhygienic premises.  
  • The selling of escolar, a fish that contains undigestible wax esters which cause gastrointestinal symptoms, as ‘white tuna’ in retail sushi outlets.   

As consumers of food, there is very little that we can do to protect ourselves from the risks; it can be difficult, if not impossible, for a consumer to detect and avoid fraudulent adulteration or misrepresentation of food.  But as food safety professionals, we are in a powerful position to protect consumers from the dangers of food fraud.  If we educate ourselves and our colleagues about the risks, build robust food fraud prevention programs, are brave and honest about our products’ vulnerabilities, investigate issues thoroughly and take decisive action when problems are found we can protect our consumers and our brands posed by food fraud. 

The power is in our hands. 

About the Author

Karen Constableis the principal of Food Fraud Advisors, which provides consultancy services, tools and training to help the food industry understand and minimize the risks from food fraud.Karen has more than twenty years experience in food manufacturing, quality assurance, food product development and food safety. She is an accredited adult trainer, a professional member of AIFST (Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology) and IAFP (The International Association of Food Protection). 

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