Blackbeard the Pirate would have refused to drink this: Counterfeit rum worth more than $4 million was seized by the Spanish police, and 24 criminals were arrested. The imitations were so real that the fake rum even made it into Spanish tax warehouses via the Netherlands. No injuries have been reported thus far. However, counterfeit alcohol often contains toxic methanol which can lead to severe injuries and even death.
Food fraud is a global problem, the size of which cannot be fully quantified. A new book edited and authored by experts on the topic seeks to comprehensively address food fraud, covering everything from its history and mitigation strategies, to tools and analytical detection methods, to diving into fraud in specific products such as ingredients, meat, poultry and seafood.
“As we point out in the first sentence of the introduction to Food Fraud: A Global Threat with Public Health and Economic Consequences, food fraud prevention and risk mitigation has become a fast-evolving area. So fast, in fact, that some people may question the value of publishing a comprehensive resource focused on these issues for fear that it will be outdated before the ink is dry. The co-editors of the book disagree,” says Steve Sklare, president of The Food Safety Academy, chair of the Food Safety Tech Advisory Board and co-editor of the book. “This book was written with the goal of providing a solid resource that is more than an academic exercise or reference. The discussion of the fundamental principles of food fraud mitigation and real-world application of this knowledge will provide a useful base of knowledge from which new information and new technology can be integrated.”
Sklare co-edited the book with Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., associate director of the food science program at Chapman University and Karen Everstine, Ph.D., senior manager of scientific affairs at Decernis and member of the Food Safety Tech Advisory Board. He hopes that offering access to the book’s first chapter will help communicate their message to the folks responsible for addressing food fraud, whether they are members of the food industry, regulators or academics, or professionals at small, medium or large food organizations.
Complimentary access to Chapter 1 of Food Fraud: A Global Threat with Public Health and Economic Consequences is available in the Food Safety Tech Resource Library. The preview also includes the book’s Table of Contents.
For more than 40 years, a syndicate of bribed government and custom officials and slaughterhouses did lucrative business by smuggling fake halal meat into Malaysia. The meat originated in unapproved slaughterhouses in several countries that produced not halal-certified and low-grade meat from a variety of animals. This scandal was a setback on Malaysia’s goal to become one of the world’s main halal meat exporters, which is a multi-billion dollar business.
Grimm’s Fairy Tale got it right after all: The “Golden Donkey” (German expression for “Golden Goose”) does indeed exist. In India, officials shut down a factory producing fake turmeric, chili powder and other spices and condiments. Authorities confiscated mostly inedible and hazardous ingredients, which included man-made pigments and colorants, acids, hay and last but not least, donkey dung. The health impact and where the “spices” were sold in retail are under investigation.
Honey is still on the list of the most adulterated foods. Adulteration can be done by mislabeling the geographical origin, by direct addition of sugars to honey, and feeding bees sugar syrup. Fortunately, a number of methods to detect fraudulent honey is available on the market. A method based on EIM-IRMS Ethanol Isotope Measurement showed to be an efficient way to detect added C3 and C4 sugars, for example from sugar beet. The research and analysis involved a number of companies and institutions (see Resources).
Herbs and botanical ingredients are a common target for fraud, especially during times of increased demand, for example caused by COVID-19. The Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) published an article describing some of the fraudulent methods that are used to intentionally create false results. The paper explains how deliberately manipulated plant extracts can fool lab methods like gas chromatography or high-performance liquid chromatography to produce results which make the analyzed product look legitimate.
Silymarin, a complex mixture of flavonolignans, is the main pharmacologically active ingredient of milk thistle, usually used in an extracted form. Milk thistle is often used to treat liver problems, and sales of supplements containing silymarin remain strong. In an estimated 30–50% of milk thistle products, the label claims of active ingredients do not hold up in the actual product, when analyzed with methods such as HPLC-UV. In some investigated samples, the active ingredient content did not even reach the minimum standard. This does not pose a direct threat to consumers’ health, however, the expected therapeutical benefits are not given in products with low content of silymarin.
As a tasty source of Vitamin C, B6, antioxidants, iron and more, elderberries have been a growing part of the latest health, immune boosting and wellness trends. Currently, the demand exceeds the supply for elderberries. For the past four to five years, this growth in popularity has been inviting adulteration of elderberry with other dark berries such as blueberries, as well as dyes, black rice and other materials. According to the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program, such fraud can be detected by a variety of chromatographic methods.
Fake honey is an enormous economical burden on beekeepers and consumers around the world. Adulteration methods are becoming more and more sophisticated. Besides the old-fashioned scams of real honey getting diluted or replaced by syrup, new tricks show up, for example pollen getting blended into syrup, chemical alteration of syrup to confuse tests, fake honey traveling through a number of countries to mask its country of origin, or a combination of these methods. Since the adulterated honey does not pose a risk to consumer’s health, government enforcement to detect and punish honey adulteration has not been very strong. So far, authenticity tests are mostly left to the private sector and the honey industry.
The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) Portal shows a notification about the use of olive leaves in oregano in Turkey. Addition of cheaper bulking agents to herbs and spices is a common way of achieving a higher profit margin for pricier herbs. The olive leaves were classified as an unauthorized novel ingredient; however, they are known to be used for the adulteration of oregano. An investigation of commercial oregano samples showed that one quarter of samples were adulterated with other plant leaves, and two of the samples didn’t even contain any oregano.
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