Food Fraud: is your food what it claims to be?

This investigative article was written for CityPalate Magazine.

Food Fraud: is your food what it claims to be?

In the criminal underworld, there are a handful of stock goods every bad guy can move. Guns, drugs, illegally modified weapons, tobacco products, olive oil….

Wait, what?

Nefarious characters dabbling in a product usually known for its dazzling drizzling and heart-healthy properties? True story.

Olive oil is one of the wold’s most fraudulently trafficked foods. So seriously does Italy take the adulteration of one of its most traded goods that in February 2017, balaclava-clad Carabinieri arrested 33 people who now stand accused of running a criminal syndicate that trafficked fake olive oil to North America.

The crime is known as food fraud and it’s a black market that costs importers, companies and ultimately consumers, billions.

“Food fraud can take many forms, from things like dilution and short-weighting to misrepresenting label claims, like country of origin or ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ labelling. There’s even more egregious examples where ingredients of a lesser economic value are substituted for ones of the higher value,” explains Dr Robert Hanner, the Associate Director for the Canadian Barcode of Life Network, headquartered at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, at the University of Guelph. You could also call Hanner a food detective.

Hanner has been working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on methods to uncover food fraud and his primary weapon is DNA.

Hanner and his team are able to test foods like seafood, meat and even processed foods or olive oil to verify that what’s being sold or traded is what it’s supposed to be.

“DNA testing has become so powerful because there’s DNA in nearly every cell of every organism. We can look at this species specific variation in the DNA sequence and use that as a way of identifying even processed products.”

Hanner has been at the centre of numerous high profile cases of food fraud. In August 2017, a study he played a role in found that up to 20% of sausage sold in Canada contained meat that was not listed on the label.

Some of the sausages tested contained horse meat, while other sausage labelled as 100% turkey contained only chicken. Still others labelled as pork contained beef. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve seen things like papaya seeds being mixed in with peppercorns as kind of a cheap filler,” reveals Hanner. “We’ve seen cases where sheep or goat milk or goat cheese are also adulterated with cow’s milk. We’ve seen cases where farmed Atlantic salmon is substituted for wild Pacific. Then of course there are well-known examples of things like olive oil that can quite often be adulterated with safflower or other cheaper oils.”

Dr. Aline Dimitri with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says food fraud is much more serious than mislabelling.

“Where this issue becomes challenging is when the food fraud can lead to a food safety issue. So for instance, if somebody has substituted one ingredient with another ingredient that causes allergies to people then that particular situation for us is looked at beyond food fraud. It’s looked at as a food safety issue,” warns Dimitri. “Maybe there is bacteria that can come through. Maybe there’s a chemical that can have an impact on human health.”

There have been cases where food fraud has done harm. In 2008 baby formula that had made its way to Canada was found to have traces of melamine, a chemical used to make plastic. In China where the formula originated, hundreds of thousands of infants got sick and several died.

“We’ve seen some cases of puffer fish being mislabeled as other species and poisoning people,” says Hanner, “We’ve seen things like escolar — that can cause diarrhea if you eat too much of it — being marketed as white tuna at sushi restaurants.”

So how does food fraud happen? Is it a case of accidental mislabelling, like failing to update ingredients on packages once the recipe changes? Or is it more deliberate?

“We have had situations where it’s not large scale but for instance somebody forgot that the formulation has changed and now there is an egg product inside and they didn’t put it on the label,” says Dimitri.

Mistakes do happen, but larger scale food fraud tends to be motivated by profits, according to the work Hanner’s done.

“It is always species of the lower economic value being substituted in for one of a higher value,” according to Hanner. “This seemed to indicate that it was economically motivated food fraud and not just simply a case of mistaken ID. If it were just the fact that some species can look alike and often get confused you might think once in a while we’d get the good stuff when we pay for the cheap stuff. But we don’t have examples of that.”

Where does food fraud originate? Is it unscrupulous fishermen trying to turn a quicker buck? A shady importer hoping for a bigger slice of the pie? Is it a dishonest shop owner thinking no one will notice? The answer is all of the above, according to Hanner and Dimitri.

Food supply chains today are long and complex, spanning numerous countries and actors. Fish from Asia might end up at a Lebanese food processing plant, which uses wrap or packaging from an Israeli supplier. The finished product could then be sold to an Italian importer, who uses a Greek shipping company. Then there’s the various wholesalers and retailers. It’s sometimes impossible to tell where in the supply chain the fraud originates.

When food fraud is caught the penalties can range from a strongly worded letter from the CFIA, to product recalls and even prosecution.

Ontario greenhouse company Mucci Farms was fined $1.5 million in 2016 for selling Mexican tomatoes and cucumbers labelled as “Product of Canada”.

Hanner’s lab has been busy testing both suspicious foods and random samples. While he’s uncovered some significant and frightening examples of fraud, he and Dimitri both agree that future battles against food fraud need to be fought on the docks and at borders with faster testing, and on-site investigation to protect consumers before tainted or misrepresented food makes it to a store.

“It’s great that we can send something off to a lab and get an answer a week later but what we need is to be able to identify something in a shipping container before we take possession of it. We need to be able to use these results in real time business intelligence.”

Both Dimitri and Hanner say diners and shoppers are often the ones who first get suspicious and start asking questions, or tip off official agencies, which is exactly what the CFIA wants.

“Go to the store manager ask questions: where does this come from, who produced it, how can you be sure that it is what it is? If you’re not satisfied, call the company that makes the food, ask them questions. If ultimately you are still not satisfied, the CFIA will always be here and we will happily answer the questions and follow up on complaints that we receive. But the consumer has to really be at the forefront.”