When we think about illegal trade and black markets we often think of firearms and drugs. But the worldwide market for food fraud is even bigger than these two. The European Commission estimates that the worldwide costs of food fraud to the global food industry and consumers exceed 30 billion euros every year.
The illegal market for firearms with a value of 8.5 billion US Dollars is comparatively small while the heroin market with a value of 30 billion US dollars is comparable in size.
A lot of people think of food fraud as a trivial offense. Nothing that is harmful. In fact, a lot of people even call others clever who dilute dried herbs with cheaper leaves or who sell horse meat labeled as beef. In these cases, at least the health of others doesn’t get harmed.
But let’s look a the 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal. Infant formula was adulterated with melamine which makes diluted milk powder look like it has a higher protein content. About 54 000 babies had to be hospitalized because the infant formula caused protein deficiencies. Six babies even died from kidney damage.
But before you tell me that this is China and incidents like this don’t happen in the Western world, I have another example for you. In 2019, three people died because sausages of the German company Wilke were contaminated with listeria. Another 37 victims had to be hospitalized because of the infection. The company is closed now because of severe violations of hygiene standards and the CEO has been accused of negligent homicide. Rotten sausages and meat had been sold to retailers for many years.
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Most cases of food fraud pose no health hazard
Of course, most cases of food fraud are harmless to the health of the consumer. But even if there is no physical harm there is huge financial harm caused by food fraud. Food fraud is a globally operating organized crime business.
In 2019, 20 criminals in Germany and Italy were arrested for producing and selling counterfeit olive oil. The criminals made up to 8 million euros in profit each year from selling sunflower oil colored with chlorophyll. They sold more than one million liters a year of fake extra-virgin olive oil for 5-10 euros per liter. The overall investment for the sunflower oil was a mere one million Euros.
In 2018, Europol claimed to have removed 3600 tonnes of dangerous food from the consumer market. Over the course of four months, across 67 countries, they carried out 41 000 checks at shops, markets, airports, seaports, and industrial estates. This led to the arrest or detention of 749 people. Nearly 50 criminal networks were exposed. Here are some shocking examples of their findings:
- In Belgium, a major meat processing plant was closed because they sold rotten meat unfit for human consumption. The minced beef contained meat waste and pieces of the carcass which are prohibited for human consumption.
- In Spain, a factory that packaged counterfeit baby milk powder destined for export to China was shut down. The powder came from Poland and lacked the nutrients needed by infants.
- Tuna in all over Europe that was originally intended for canning was illegally treated with chemical substances to alter its color and sell it “fresh” as tuna steaks. Mislabelling was also a common issue as cheaper tuna species were sold labeled as more expensive species.
A study by Spanish scientists analyzed 545 tuna samples in six European countries and found an overall mislabelling rate of 6.79 %. There was no significant difference in the mislabelling rate between fresh, frozen, and canned tuna. The most commonly mislabelled product was the Atlantic Bluefin tuna. It’s one of the rare and more desirable tuna species. Offer and demand do not match and the result is a very high mislabelling rate.
Mislabelling of seafood is a common crime worldwide
The US also has a huge problem with seafood fraud. The government urges Americans to include more seafood in their diet and thus the demand is growing. From 2010 to 2012, Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations worldwide. DNA-testing led to the result that 33 percent of the analyzed seafood samples in the US were mislabeled according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Snapper (87 % mislabelling rate) and tuna (59 % mislabelling rate) had the highest mislabeling rates. Compare that to an average mislabelling rate for tuna of 6.79 % in Europe and it becomes apparent that the situation in the US is even worse. 75 % of sushi restaurants in the US sell mislabelled fish.
It’s not uncommon in the US to sell:
- king mackerel labeled as grouper
- escolar labeled as white tuna
- tilapia labeled as red snapper
- Atlantic halibut labeled as Pacific halibut
One of the problems is that a lot of US consumers prefer fillets over whole fish and that it is very unrealistic that anyone in the world can differentiate the 1700 different species of seafood available for sale in the US. So it’s very easy to make economic gains through mislabelling.
Which other foods are commonly manipulated?
Just as in Europe, olive oil fraud is also very common in the US. Forbes magazine even asked the question: “If 80 % is fake, why do you keep buying it?” It is the sad truth that 80 % of the Italian extra virgin olive oil on the American market is fraudulent.
The biggest problem in the US is by far the quality. Most extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is not of “extra virgin” quality. But not just that. It might also be that the oil is not from Italy or that it has been diluted with other oils. Or it is no olive oil at all and just a vegetable oil disguised with coloring and aroma. It’s all the same issues as in Germany.
Besides seafood and oil, other foods that are often associated with food fraud are:
- milk and milk-based products (eg. blending of cow milk with milk from other animals, dilution and supplementation with melamine to artificially raise the apparent protein content)
- honey, maple syrup, and other sweeteners (eg. dilution with sugar syrup, mislabeling of Chinese honey as local honey)
- fruit juice (eg. dilution with water, blending of more expensive juice with cheaper juice, fake juice consisting of water, sugar, and aromas)
- coffee and tea (eg. cutting of ground coffee with leaves, twigs, roasted ground barley, or roasted ground parchment, the addition of other leaves, color additives, and colored sawdust to tea blends)
- spices (eg. addition of glycerin, sandalwood dust, and yellow dye to saffron, the addition of starch, buckwheat, or millet to pepper, the coloring of paprika and chili powders with Sudan red dyes)
- organic foods and products (eg. labeling non-organic as organic food)
- clouding agents (eg. addition of the harmful plasticizer DEHP to fruit juices or jams as a substitute for other clouding agents like palm oil)
The reported types of fraud worldwide by the food category are visualized in the pie chart below. By far the three biggest segments are oils, spices, and milk.
Most criminals aim to maximize their financial profits
Usually, criminals who conduct food fraud don’t intend to harm consumers. They are purely driven by the idea of gaining an economical advantage. Thus, most incidents remain undetected since they usually don’t result in a food safety risk and consumers are unable to notice a quality problem. The number of documented incidents, therefore, resembles only a small fraction of the true number of incidents. It is estimated that about 10 % of all commercially sold food products are affected by food fraud.
The most common type of food fraud, economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of foods, is considered a subset category of food fraud. The term EMA broadly references three types of fraud:
- complete or partial replacement of food ingredients with a less expensive substitute (eg. horse meat instead of beef in ground meat)
- addition of small amounts of a non-authentic substance to mask ingredients or foods of inferior quality (eg. addition of sugar and aromas to diluted apple juice)
- removal or intentional omission of an authentic and valuable constituent in food (eg. selling whole milk with a reduced protein content)
False claims regarding geographic heritage are also considered as economically motivated adulteration.
Most cases of economically motivated adulteration are reported in the US followed by China and India. This, of course, doesn’t mean that food fraud is more common in the US than anywhere else. It’s rather an indication that other countries or regions don’t have the same ability and dedication to detect food fraud.
Food fraud has resulted in countless food scandals
Let’s wrap up this discussion with a selection of ten food scandals from around the world:
- The mad cow disease in the 1980s killed over 100 people. 180 000 cattle were affected and millions had to be slaughtered for safety reasons.
- In 2013, the Irish Food Safety Authority identified horse DNA in over one-third of beef burgers. In Germany, horse meat was found in frozen lasagna and Swedish meatballs.
- In 2016, a young British girl suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after eating a Pret sandwich containing sesame seeds. The girl was allergic and the sesame seeds weren’t featured on the ingredient list.
- In 1985, the antifreeze-agent diethylene glycol was found in Austrian wine. Glycol makes the wine sweeter but is a health hazard.
- In 2004, European authorities discovered that the colors of spices imported from Turkey and India were manipulated with dying agents. Indian chili powder got its characteristic red color from the harmful dye Sudan red.
- In 2013, 130 tons of rotten Bavarian meat was sold to Berlin street vendors selling kebabs. Most of the meat was consumed by customers.
- In 2018, it was discovered that millions of conventionally produced barn eggs were labeled and sold as organic eggs in eight German states.
- In 2007, cancer-causing chemicals were discovered in soy sauce sold in Vietnam. But not just that, noodle soups sold on the street contained formaldehyde. This scandal can be traced back to bad farming practices and the use of toxic pesticides.
- In 2016, it was discovered that parmesan sold in the US was extended with cellulose. Some brands who labeled their product as 100 % parmesan contained no parmesan at all.
- In 2017, it was revealed that a company in Southern China had been boiling rotten pigs to extract oil that was later sold as cooking oil.
The amount of food fraud and food scandals in this world is appalling. Every day millions of people get cheated on and eventually even harmed by criminals in the food industry. The worst thing about this situation is that we are helpless. People are incredibly smart when it comes to counterfeiting food and other products.
We don’t have the capacity to detect and stop most of the food fraud that is happening. But we should be aware of it. And we should take a look at where our food comes from. Always ask yourself the question: where was my food grown and who processed it?