Have you ever been a victim of food fraud, either as a consumer or while working in the food industry? It’s likely that at some point you have paid too much for a ‘premium’ product that was not exactly what it should have been. Foods such as olive oil, organic products, fish and specialty beef products are commonly misrepresented to purchasers. Take the food fraud survey to find out it you have been affected.
News from Malta today tells the story of a serial food fraudster who has been detained over the export of counterfeit organic grains and oil seeds. Malta Today reports that 350 000 tons of corn, soybeans, wheat, rapeseed (canola) and sunflower seeds worth €126 million and sold as organic over a period of six or more years probably weren’t organic at all. Italian investigators found that the grains were grown in Moldova, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, certified as organic or bio by untrustworthy regulators in those countries and purchased by a Maltese company which then exported them to Italy.
The man behind the Maltese company is awaiting trial. Previously, he has been arrested over a shipment of GMO corn in 2014, implicated in counterfeit organic food scandals in 2011 and was tried for falsification of an invoice in 2010. Could we call him a cereal (serial) offender?
Nice one, Food Standards Scotland.
What looked at first to be a number of cases of deliberate fraud was given some sensible attention and analysis by Food Standards Scotland (FSS), with unexpected results. The organisation surveyed fish products supplied to their public sector food outlets, including hospitals and schools, to get a snapshot of the degree of species mislabelling. Of the 264 samples tested, around 6% of those (15) were mislabelled.
Any mislabelling is a breach of trust and a breach of food laws, but a result of 6% is relatively low and not likely to have a large economic impact. Nevertheless, FSS investigated each of the incidences, retested products and spoke to the suppliers directly.
Product labelled as haddock was the type most often found have been mislabelled during the survey, with ‘haddock’ found to be another fish species in 8 of 50 samples (16%). As you would expect when considering fish species fraud, the most common substitute for haddock was a cheaper fish, whiting, the two types of fillets having similar appearance, flavour and texture. Interestingly, however, almost half of all the ‘fraudulent’ samples were in fact an expensive fish (haddock) mislabelled as a cheaper species (whiting or coley). Those results are obviously not ones you would expect to find when investigating fish fraud, and they are unlikely to be the result of any deliberate attempt to gain an economic advantage.
To the credit of the FSS they uncovered the cause of the mislabelling for most of the incidences; suppliers of the mislabelled fish admitted that they sometimes had trouble identifying incoming block fillets. Some also admitted that they were not adequately separating or labelling different fish species during processing, handling and packing operations. The suppliers in question have implemented improvements and have requested better labelling of their suppliers to prevent future occurrences; good news for the Scottish seafood industry.
Vulnerability assessments are a hot topic in food safety at the moment, with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) food safety standards set to include requirements for documented food fraud vulnerability assessments in the near future. Most food safety and food integrity experts believe that vulnerability assessments are an important first step towards preventing fraudulent foods from reaching consumers. However, in an interview with Food Safety News, Mitchell Weinberg, food fraud investigator and CEO of Inscatech describes food fraud vulnerability assessments as “frankly… a little bit of a waste of time.” Mr Weinberg says that a food fraud vulnerability assessment is essentially about recording what you already know. He explains that if a business is sourcing a food ingredient from a developing country, they should already know that it is more likely to be affected by fraud than if sourced locally. Likewise, high value and high volume materials are more attractive to fraudsters. Weinberg tells the interviewer:
“Just use common sense, figure out where the problem is, check it out… trust but verify.“
Weinberg is right; creating documented risk assessments of any kind is simply an exercise in writing down what we already know. And common sense should be at the core of any risk assessment. So is there any value in a documented vulnerability assessment?
- A documented assessment is a record of who thought of what and when they thought of it. It is evidence that fraud has been considered; it can be used to check that common sense was used in that consideration. It can be audited, reviewed and updated. It can be shared.
- The process of creating a documented assessment can serve as a prompt to identify gaps in knowledge and provide an incentive to ‘fill in the gaps’.
- A documented vulnerability assessment can be used to transfer knowledge. Weinberg says creating a written assessment is making a record of what you already know; that is exactly what is needed when the person who made the assessment changes jobs or has to explain supply chain risks to a stubborn Purchasing Manager.
- Most food businesses manufacture hundreds of food products and many more hundreds of ingredients; comparing the vulnerability assessments of different products and materials is an effective way to prioritise fraud prevention actions. While the ultimate aim is for no product to be compromised ever, we all have to start somewhere.
To view the interview with Mitchell Weinberg, click here.
My friend loves to buy healthy, natural and organic food for her family. They eat a couple of kilos of almonds per week. Last week she decided to check out the organic almonds available for bulk purchase at a local natural food co-op (yes this is in an inner suburb of Sydney, how’d you guess?). The organic almonds were over twice as expensive at the co-op than if she had bought them from one of the big supermarkets.
Are they worth it? Maybe… she really likes the idea of buying organic food.
Are they authentic? Who knows? If the organic almonds are selling for around $30 per kg and the supermarket almonds are selling for $15 per kg then an unscrupulous supplier could make some easy money by adding just 10% ‘non-organic’ almonds to each lot of organic. Do I think the local organic co-op would do such a thing? No, I don’t think they would. Do I think that there are people in their supply chain who might be tempted to take advantage of the premium price of organic food by acting fraudulently? Absolutely.
So are organic almonds vulnerable to food fraud? Yes. But how do you know if your almonds are authentic? And what are the consequences it they are not?