Food Fraud – Lessons from History

DEG, Food Fraud and the Future of Safe Food

By John Keogh

Counterfeit consumer products have become a growing concern over the last few decades. In particular, where consumer health and safety are a concern.

While it may be obvious that the branded watch for sale at a market for $30 is not genuine, food contamination caused by counterfeit and adulterated ingredients is generally not easy to detect. Depending on how they were altered or repackaged, they can have severe health effects and can even be deadly.

Several high-profile incidents of food adulteration in recent years, combined with heightened collaboration among global industry, academia and governments, has provided us the perfect opportunity to prevent history from repeating itself, and to act together to ensure food integrity and consumer safety.

The Massengill Incident: a Pivotal Point in Consumer Safety

Occurrences of mass poisoning date back to 1937 when 71 adults and 34 children died across 15 states in the U.S., after toxic levels of diethylene glycol (DEG) were added to a new elixir from the pharmaceutical manufacturer S.E. Massengill Company.

DEG is a colorless and practically odorless substance that is known to be toxic to humans and most commonly used as an anti-freeze agent. The public anger that ensued was behind the creation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. The Act is in the process of being replaced by the Food Safety & Modernization Act (FSMA) this summer.

DEG strikes again: the Austrian Wine Incident

The world was shocked yet again in 1985, after it was discovered that a small number of Austrian winemakers were found to be using DEG to add a desired sweetness to their wine. The short-term effect of the incident was a collapse of Austrian wine exports and a negative blow to the wine industry’s reputation. It took almost 15 years to regain consumer confidence and restore market share. The incident showed the severe economic impacts fraud can have, damaging an entire industry sector and forcing it to rebuild the public trust.

A Timeline of Incidents Involving DEG

DEG didn’t go away. It continued causing the deaths of mainly children over the course of decades after being added to various pharmaceutical products:

    • 1969: South Africa, 7 deaths


    • 1985: Spain, 5 deaths


    • 1986: India, 21 deaths


    • 1990: Nigeria, 47 deaths (children)


    • 1992: Bangladesh, 300+ deaths (children)


    • 1992: Argentina, 29 deaths


    • 1996: Haiti, 88+ deaths (children)


    • 2006: China, deaths unknown


    • 2006: Panama, 219 deaths


    • 2008: Nigeria, 84 deaths (children)

Dr. Michael L. Bennish, a US pediatrician who investigated the 1992 Bangladesh incident, said that given the amount of medication distributed, “deaths are vastly unreported and must be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

The renowned German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) said, “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.” Following on from Hegel’s wisdom, it may not be surprising that toxic levels of DEG continued to be found in various products.

A Final Wake Up Call – After 70 Years!

What started off as a local product safety alert in the UK in 2007 revealed a global problem with counterfeit, DEG-laden toothpaste involving household brands in more than 30 countries. The resulting backlash forced many countries to either limit or ban DEG usage.

But one key question remains unanswered: Why did it take 70 years for the public and private sectors to take action and reduce the human risk despite growing scientific evidence, as well as hundreds or possibly thousands of deaths caused by food contamination from harmful ingredients?

While counterfeit and substitution played a key role in several of the incidents, one of the main issues is the lack of global harmonization of food safety regulations and standards to address the ever-widening global supply chains. To solve the problem, public-private partnerships are needed to tackle the root cause.

The Battle to Protect Food Integrity

As more countries enter into the already complex global food chain, the possibility of food contamination in the form of finding an unsafe food substitute or counterfeit ingredient remains high.

Among other key factors is the disparity in food safety culture and competency from one country to the next, making it difficult to enforce standards and regulations to prevent food contamination.

To get to the root of the issue, all stakeholders need to play a greater role in developing a strong food safety culture, at all stages in the global value chain.

The key is to be diligent. The food industry plays its part by assessing suppliers of raw ingredients and assessing the risk for fraud to occur. The public sector provides food safety agencies, border control agents and market surveillance staff to carry out vital enforcement roles and regulations.

The Value of Public-Private Partnerships in Preventing Food Fraud

In spite of constant competitive pressures to maintain integrity and global trust, opportunities still exist for people to cut corners and risk lives to improve profit margins, resulting in inadvertent or purposeful food contamination.

But many businesses take their responsibilities seriously, stepping up to collaborate with other stakeholders to introduce food safety measures and practices that make us all safer. Since 2000 several partnerships have developed with the aim of alleviating the risks of another crisis.

One major partnership is the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which is driven by The Consumer Goods Forum (TCGF) – an Association consisting of senior executives from the top 400+ food manufacturers and retailers globally.

The GFSI initiative has made progress in benchmarking private food safety standards, as well as delivering capacity-building workshops and best practice sharing since its formation in 2000.

The newest form of public-private partnership is the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP), which is managed by the World Bank and has received initial funding from five governments and two prominent businesses. The GFSP combines food safety training and technical support for developing countries aimed at improving food safety systems and compliance with food safety standards. 

Moving Toward Greater Food & Consumer Safety

Professor Alan Reilly, CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland was recently quoted as saying “There is no market for unsafe food – under pinning consumer confidence with transparent supply chains and science-based decision making is the only way forward in global food trade.”

Prof. Reilly’s team was responsible for exposing the 2013 European horsemeat scandal and remarkably was the only EU agency testing for horsemeat at the time of the event. This incident was a wake up call to both the public and private sectors, highlighting the need for greater vigilance across the entire value chain with more emphasis placed on the development of a food safety culture among stakeholders. However, thinking like a criminal may need to become the new norm to prevent food contamination.

Professor Reilly’s call-to-action for more transparent supply chains may be the impetus that’s needed to ensure it becomes a reality.

We may never prove Hegel wrong – but recent initiatives may reduce our amnesia and allow us to harness the power of our growing knowledge, protect consumers and win the fight to ensure food integrity.

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