How does food fraud show up in fresh fruit and veg?
Adulteration-type fraud is rare in whole fresh fruits and vegetables because they have recognisable forms. However, in developing countries, there have been reports of fruits and vegetables dyed with illegal colourants to improve their apparent value. Processed fruits and vegetables such as pickles are sometimes adulterated with unauthorised or undeclared colourants.
Other types of fraud, including organic fraud, misrepresentation of origin and counterfeiting also occur in fruits and vegetables.
Theft affects fruit and veg, and it is sometimes smuggled across borders to evade inspections or taxes. An unusual type of fraud, which involves the infringement of intellectual property rights for proprietary fruit varieties has been reported in Egyptian table grapes recently.
Counterfeiting of premium brands of fruit is said to occur frequently in China. Cheaper fruit is packaged into containers that are labelled to look like premium brands without the authority of the brand owner. Australian cherries, New Zealand kiwifruit and Dole-branded products from the Americas have been affected.
In developing countries, fruits such as mangoes are sometimes ripened using unauthorised practices, such as by treating with calcium carbide, ethephon and oxytocin chemicals. The use of such ripening agents is usually illegal and can be harmful to human health.
The outlook for food fraud in fruit and vegetables
Production is at risk from climate change and prices are affected by extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent with climate change. Extreme weather events can lead to unexpected supply and demand patterns which can increase motivations for fraud perpetrators. Large differences in prices between conventionally grown and organic produce can increase the likelihood of organic fraud. Large differences between prices in different countries can encourage smuggling and misrepresentation of origin.
Examples of food fraud in fruit and vegetables
Smuggled watermelons: Authorities stopped a vehicle carrying 25 tons of illicit watermelons worth $40 million in Chile in August 2023. The fruit had been smuggled into the country from Peru without the correct biosecurity measures. An official explained the watermelons were being illegally imported because they were out of season and so were double their usual price (source).
Stolen potatoes: Routine checks by Italian agri-food officers in April 2023 discovered 16 tons of potatoes which did not have correct documents as to their origin, which is a requirement under European law. The owners of the potatoes were fined (source).
Unauthorised grapes: A 16 ton container load of grapes was seized and destroyed at a port in Italy in July 2023, as they were being imported from Egypt. The grapes were of the ‘Early Sweet’ variety, a proprietary variety that may only be produced under licence. The owner of the variety’s intellectual property said the grapes were grown in Egypt and were labelled as a different grape variety. The mislabelling would have allowed the grapes to be imported. The identity of the grape variety was confirmed with DNA testing. The intellectual property owner said that this was the fourth container load to be destroyed because of illegal trade in proprietary varieties of fruit in “recent years” (source).
Well-travelled raspberries: In 2019, a large shipment of non-organic, Chinese-grown raspberries worth $12m was caught by Chilean customs agents as it was being exported from Chile to Canada. They were labelled Chilean and Organic, claims that were both false (source).
Counterfeit fruits: In 2017 and 2018, nearly 1.1m pieces of fruit were revealed to have been falsely labelled with premium brands such as Dole, Zespri and Sunkist in China. Thirteen people were prosecuted for their roles in the scam (source).
How to protect yourself from fruit and veg fraud
Food businesses should be aware that food fraud can affect fruit and veg in various ways, with misrepresentation of organic status and origin being the most likely types of fraud in wealthy countries. Be vigilant to false claims, and verify any claims made by suppliers wherever possible. Check that organic certificates are valid with the certifying body. Purchase produce from trusted wholesalers, and avoid purchasing from ‘the back of the truck’.
Consumers should take care when purchasing ‘organic’ fruit from markets and independent grocers, which are more likely to have organic-fraud-affected wares than large retailers which have more robust systems to prevent fraud. In developing countries, avoid fresh produce that has unnaturally bright colours or is ripe outside its normal season.