The alarm bells have been sounding for a long time, but only in the past few years have consumers, regulators, and companies started to wrestle seriously with the problem of food fraud.
Chalk it up to the melamine-laced baby formula that killed at least six Chinese infants in 2008 and sickened nearly 30,000 others. Or maybe it was last year’s hamburger scandal, when regulators discovered that horsemeat had slipped into hamburger patties sold all over Europe, one of the world’s most highly regulated markets.
Just last month, fast-food purveyors McDonald’s and KFC apologized for using tainted meat in the meals they served Chinese customers. The acknowledgment came after a Chinese television report revealed that workers at a supplier for both franchisers had been mixing out-of-date meat with fresh meat and putting meat that had fallen on the floor back on the processing line.
High-profile cases may be sprouting up, but food fraud has gone on for years mostly without detection and sometimes with the participation of criminal organizations. For instance, forensic food scientists have detected adulterants such as water, whey, and soybean oil in milk. They have also detected less expensive oils such as hazelnut, sunflower, soybean, and walnut where they should have found only olive oil.
Food fraud detectives count on scientific instruments to help them track down adulterants. And because of the spate of high-profile food fraud cases, instrument and test kit makers see a growing opportunity to provide their equipment to governments and the food industry. Yet critics insist that more needs to be done throughout the food supply chain to keep the problem of fraud at bay.
“Food fraud is huge,” says John Spink, director of the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University. Although “the vast majority of incidents do not have a public health threat, every food fraud incident is a public health vulnerability,” he says. Food fraud includes the addition, substitution, and mislabeling of product ingredients for economic gain.
Europe’s horsemeat scandal exposed several shortcomings in the ability of government and industry to fight food fraud, according to Spink. “How would we trace a routine food safety concern for that horsemeat incident last year?” he asks. “We didn’t even know it was in there, let alone how to trace it.” Only after the scandal broke did food scientists think to test for phenylbutazone, a painkiller used in horses but which can be toxic to humans. Fortunately, none was found.
Indeed, every time an unexpected adulterant comes along, companies and regulators scramble to find new test methods, only to ease off once the story has moved on.