Food Fraud: Do you get what you pay for?

Marshalee Valentine

Thursday, November 08, 2018

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So we've heard the news reports about horse meat being marketed as beef, plastic rice being sold and even donkey meat being found in restaurants here in Jamaica. In 2008, there were reports of infant formula being adulterated with melamine — a chemical increasing the protein content of milk when added to it — causing the death of six infants and an estimated 300,000 affected. Back home we also have the Coffee Industry Board clamping down on local distributors of coffee for the marketing of coffee as 100% Jamaica Blue Mountain without adequate approvals and licences. What about our food being labelled as “organic” when non-organic chemicals are still used in cultivation? Is that wild salmon you picked up really wild salmon, or was it farm-grown with antibiotics, chemicals and pesticides?

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, food fraud is the “fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, ie, for economic gain”. In essence, producers of food or food ingredients may be using low-quality ingredients, substituting with items not listed on labels, diluting ingredients with water, not adding ingredients, using species not declared, all in an effort to increase their bottom line. Of course, we sometimes marvel at how inexpensive some of the items we purchase are in comparison to others, and at times always opt for the cheaper brand — I know I am guilty of this.

Not all food fraud occurrences pose a risk to public health, as in the case of coffee being marketed and sold as Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee when it is in fact from another region. The health risk will come, however, when unregulated production practices results in improper storage practices which may introduce toxins into the coffee prior to roasting. So while the main reason for adulterating food is economic gain, severe health risks can result if consumers ingest ingredients that are toxic or cause them to have an allergic, intolerance or sensitivity reactions.

Food fraud is a global issue and is very difficult to detect and prevent across the supply chain, especially due to globalisation of food supply; one product may have ingredients from at least five different countries! The FDA Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) Preventive Controls rule requires that manufacturers in certain food facilities conduct vulnerability assessments and implement mitigation strategies that address all types of food fraud, specifically, all “agents” that could lead to a “hazard that requires a preventive control” from an act that is “economically motivated”. This is to aid in the prevention of intentional adulteration that could cause problems to public health, including acts of terrorism targeting the food supply. Such acts, while not likely to occur, could cause illness, death and economic disruption of the food supply absent mitigation strategies.

Most cases of food fraud can only be detected through food testing and while some manufacturers may take steps to conduct tests on raw materials from their suppliers, we consumers can only take precautionary steps and trust that our suppliers are taking preventative measures and are honest. I will list a few precautionary steps we can take to not fall victim to food fraud.

• Make yourself aware of products that usually fall victim to food fraud. Some of these include olive oil, fish and seafood, milk and milk-based products, honey, fruit juices, coffee, tea, spices and organic foods and products.

• It's always safer to make a homemade fruit juice; however, if you have to purchase processed foods, do so from reputable and trusted suppliers.

• While this may sound tedious, do some research on companies to see if they have accredited food safety certifications, as food fraud prevention is now embedded in most food safety management systems. While this may not eliminate the possibility of falling victim to food fraud — because they themselves are sometimes victims — they would have at least taken steps to minimise the occurrence.

If the price sounds too good to be true... it probably is. So while that “no name” brand extra virgin olive oil may be half the price of a reputable brand, you may be setting yourself up to be a victim of fraud.

If you suspect a food product has made you sick, contact your public health department right away.


Marshalee Valentine

CEO-Quality, Food Safety & Environmental Management Systems Consultant

Vally Consulting

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