Fraudsters, take notice: The Hull City Council’s Trading Standards Team confiscated several hundred bottles of fake wine that imitated a well-known brand. Fortunately, in this case, the counterfeit wines did not pose a risk to human health, however, illicit alcoholic beverages can be dangerous. Hull’s city officials are taking this very seriously and set up a hotline where citizens can report fraud cases.
In a large case of trademark violations and counterfeiting, Haldiram, the leading snack manufacturer from India, filed a lawsuit against a Georgia-based distributor. The distribution company misused the well-known Haldiram label to import, distribute and sell counterfeit beverages, snacks, beverages and ready-to-eat meals in the United States, which is a large market for Haldiram. The company is seeking significant amounts of money for damages caused by the distributor and an immediate stop to the trademark infringements.
Adulterated alcohol continues to pose serious risks to health and even life of consumers. In this latest case from the Dominican Republic, more than two dozen people have died from methanol poisoning due to a low-cost illegally made drink, and from fake brand-named products. Businesses associated with the scams were raided and closed, and arrests were made. Officials keep warning against the consumption of illegally manufactured alcoholic beverages.
It is fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year with wide-ranging effects, including significant effects on our ongoing efforts to ensure food integrity and prevent fraud in the food system. COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions for foods and many other consumer products. It also highlighted challenges in effective tracking and standardization of food fraud-related data.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable food fraud occurrences in 2020:
Organic Products. The Spanish Guardia Civil investigated an organized crime group that sold pistachios with pesticide residues that were fraudulently labeled as organic, reportedly yielding €6 million in profit. USDA reported fraudulent organic certificates for products including winter squash, leafy greens, collagen peptides powder, blackberries, and avocados. Counterfeit wines with fraudulent DOG, PGI, and organic labels were discovered in Italy.
Herbs and Spices. Quite a few reports came out of India and Pakistan about adulteration and fraud in the local spice market. One of the most egregious involved the use of animal dung along with various other substances in the production of fraudulent chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and garam masala spice mix. Greece issued a notification for a turmeric recall following the detection of lead, chromium, and mercury in a sample of the product. Belgium recalled chili pepper for containing an “unauthorized coloring agent.” Reports of research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast also indicated that 25% of sage samples purchased from e-commerce or independent channels in the U.K. were adulterated with other leafy material.
Dairy Products. India and Pakistan have also reported quite a few incidents of fraud in local markets involving dairy products. These have included reports of counterfeit ghee and fraudulent ghee manufactured with animal fats as well as milk adulterated with a variety of fraudulent substances. The Czech Republic issued a report about Edam cheese that contained vegetable fat instead of milk fat.
Meat and Fish. This European report concluded that the vulnerability to fraud in animal production networks was particularly high during to the COVID-19 pandemic due to the “most widely spread effects in terms of production, logistics, and demand.” Thousands of pounds of seafood were destroyed in Cambodia because they contained a gelatin-like substance. Fraudulent USDA marks of inspection were discovered on chicken imported to the United States from China. Soy protein far exceeding levels that could be expected from cross contamination were identified in sausage in the Czech Republic. In Colombia, a supplier of food for school children was accused of selling donkey and horse meat as beef. Decades of fraud involving halal beef was recently reported in in Malaysia.
Alcoholic Beverages. To date, our system has captured more than 30 separate incidents of fraud involving wine or other alcoholic beverages in 2020. Many of these involved illegally produced products, some of which contained toxic substances such as methanol. There were also multiple reports of counterfeit wines and whisky. Wines were also adulterated with sugar, flavors, colors and water.
We have currently captured about 70% of the number of incidents for 2020 as compared to 2019, although there are always lags in reporting and data capture, so we expect that number to rise over the coming weeks. These numbers do not appear to bear out predictions about the higher risk of food fraud cited by many groups resulting from the effects of COVID-19. This is likely due in part to reduced surveillance and reporting due to the effects of COVID lockdowns on regulatory and auditing programs. However, as noted in a recent article, we should take seriously food fraud reports that occur against this “backdrop of reduced regulatory oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.” If public reports are just the tip of the iceburg, 2020 numbers that are close to those reported in 2019 may indeed indicate that the iceburg is actually larger.
Unfortunately, tracking food fraud reports and inferring trends is a difficult task. There is currently no globally standardized system for collection and reporting information on food fraud occurrences, or even standardized definitions for food fraud and the ways in which it happens. Media reports of fraud are challenging to verify and there can be many media reports related to one individual incident, which complicates tracking (especially by automated systems). Reports from official sources are not without their own challenges. Government agencies have varying priorities for their surveillance and testing programs, and these priorities have a direct effect on the data that is reported. Therefore, increases in reports for a particular commodity do not necessarily indicate a trend, they may just reflect an ongoing regulatory priority a particular country. Official sources are also not standardized with respect to how they report food safety or fraud incidents. Two RASFF notifications in 2008 following the discovery of melamine adulteration in milk illustrate this point (see Figure 1). In the first notification for a “milk drink” product, the hazard category was listed as “adulteration/fraud.” However, in the second notification for “chocolate and strawberry flavor body pen sets,” the hazard category was listed as “industrial contaminants,” even though the analytical result was higher.1
What does all of this mean for ensuring food authenticity into 2021? We need to continue efforts to align terminology, track food fraud risk data, and ensure transparency and evaluation of the data that is reported. Alignment and standardization of food fraud reporting would go a long way to improving our understanding of how much food fraud occurs and where. Renewed efforts by global authorities to strengthen food authenticity protections are important. Finally, consumers and industry must continue to demand and ensure authenticity in our food supply. While most food fraud may not have immediate health consequences for consumers, reduced controls can lead to systemic problems and have devastating effects.
Everstine, K., Popping, B., and Gendel, S.M. (2021). Food fraud mitigation: strategic approaches and tools. In R.S. Hellberg, K. Everstine, & S. Sklare (Eds.) Food Fraud – A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences (pp. 23-44). Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817242-1.00015-4
Botanical ingredients are important to the food and beverage industries as well as the dietary supplements industry. Botanicals are plants or specific plant parts (leaves, roots, bark, berries, etc.) that are used for particular properties. These properties can be therapeutic or related to color, flavor or other attributes. Botanicals include extracts such as Ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, and elderberry as well as herbs and spices used in cooking, essential oils, pomegranate juice and extracts, and olive oil. There is a substantial overlap between botanical products used in the herb and supplement industries and those used in foods and beverages. Many “conventional” foods and beverages include botanical extracts or other ingredients to advertise a therapeutic effect.
In 2014, FDA issued a final guidance for industry related to labeling of liquid dietary supplements (vs. beverages). FDA noted, in their rationale for the guidance, two trends:
“First, we have seen an increase in the marketing of beverages as dietary supplements, in spite of the fact that the packaging and labeling of many liquid products represent the products as conventional foods. Products that are represented as conventional foods do not meet the statutory definition of a dietary supplement…and must meet the regulatory requirements that apply to conventional foods.
Second, FDA has seen a growth in the marketplace of beverages and other conventional foods that contain novel ingredients, such as added botanical ingredients or their extracts. Some of these ingredients have not previously been used in conventional foods and may be unapproved food additives. In addition, ingredients that have been present in the food supply for many years are now being added to beverages and other conventional foods at levels in excess of their traditional use levels or in new beverages or other conventional foods. This trend raises questions regarding whether these ingredients are unapproved food additives when used at higher levels or under other new conditions of use. Some foods with novel ingredients also bear claims that misbrand the product or otherwise violate the FFDCA.”
The American Botanical Council (ABC) has been publishing information on the safe, responsible and effective use of botanicals since 1988, including the quarterly journal HerbalGram and a book of herb monographs The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. In order to help combat the increasing problem of adulteration in the industry, the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) was launched in 2010 by ABC along with the American Herbal Pharmacopeia and the University of Mississippi National Center for Natural Products Research. The goal of BAPP is to educate members of the herbal and dietary supplement industry about ingredient and product adulteration through the publication of documents such as adulteration bulletins and laboratory guidance documents. The information in these documents helps ensure the identity, authenticity and safety of botanicals along the supply chain.
Karen Everstine will be discussing food fraud during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series | An example of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin for cranberry is seen in Figure 1. It includes a description of the species that can be labeled as cranberry in the United States, a brief description of the marketplace, information on potential adulterants in cranberry fruit extract and other cranberry products, and guidance on analytical methods to test cranberry products for adulteration.
Decernis has been working with the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) to integrate links to their expert content into the Food Fraud Database (FFD). This will ensure our users can better develop ingredient specifications, manage risk, and protect their consumers by leveraging this content for food fraud and herbal ingredient fraud prevention. We are currently incorporating three types of BAPP documents into FFD:
Adulterants Bulletins. Information and links to these documents will be entered as Inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names (including Latin names as synonyms) from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Adulteration Reports. Information and links to these documents will also be entered as Inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Laboratory Guidance documents. Information and links to these documents will be entered as both method record and inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Decernis analysts are currently integrating this content into FFD, which will be uploaded to the system between now and early September.
Counterfeit alcoholic beverages keep claiming lives, like in this latest case in the state of Punjab in India. To curb the consumption of alcohol, the Indian government has imposed high taxes on alcoholic beverages, with the effect of increased illegal alcohol production. Often, the alcohol is from a variety of sources like nuts and sugar cane and of poor quality, posing a health hazard. Officials raided numerous operations and arrested multiple suspects, including police officers and customs officials.
Much of the news coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic mentions infection numbers and fatalities. Those are undoubtedly important for showing parts of the overall impact. However, it’s easy to overlook the ramifications felt by some professionals. One recent example concerns the instances of dairy farmers dumping milk.
Numerous Factors Contributing to the Problem
The pandemic drastically and dramatically disrupted life. Many of the associated changes affected milk producers, but perhaps not in the ways people expect. As schools closed and restaurants operated on delivery or a takeaway-only basis, the demand for milk typically consumed in the food and educational sector went down.
Consider, too, that the pandemic forced the closure of enterprises that did not necessarily serve large quantities of milk every day but still likely placed ongoing orders with suppliers. For example, a daycare center might give toddlers boxes of dairy beverages each day during snack time. Coffee shops often add milk to their lattes or set out bottles for people who want to put some in their coffee.
When coronavirus cases emerged in the United States, many people panicked and flocked to grocery stores for essentials. Milk is often one of the staples people buy before winter storms hit, and they wanted it to prepare for the pandemic, too. One Target store in New Jersey sold out of its entire stock of milk in only five minutes. Stores responded by imposing per-person limits on the product.
If the demand exists, what caused the milk surplus? Part of it boils down to a lack of space at milk processing plants. A related issue is that processors typically serve particular markets. One might cater to retail buyers while another primarily addresses needs in the food service sector. They lack the infrastructure to pivot and begin accepting milk orders from a new type of customer, particularly if the milk-based product is substantially different, like sour cream versus ice cream.
A First-Time Phenomenon
Farmers discarding milk is not unheard of, but it’s not something many producers do regularly. Andrew Griffith, a professor at the University of Tennessee, said that some farmers had to do it recently for the first time in careers spanning decades. He explained, “It’s not that [dumping] hasn’t occurred from farm to farm.” Adverse weather conditions can delay pickups, and unexpected supply spoilages might lead to too much milk.
“But we’re talking about a level of dumping that is not common at all. There [are] a lot of farmers that are experiencing dumping milk for the first time in their 30- or 40-year careers,” Griffith said in an article published on The Counter.
The highly perishable nature of milk poses another problem contributing to the milk surplus. That aspect hit dairy harder than some other types of agricultural goods. People could put grain into silos, but storage is more complicated for dairy products.
Any exposure to higher-than-recommended temperatures causes spoilage. The subsequent risk to consumers means farmers must throw it away. Cold storage facilities are essential for the dairy industry. Statistics from 2018 indicated an average of 10.67 cents per kilowatt-hour for energy consumption at commercial facilities. However, cold storage facilities operate 24/7, so their energy needs are often higher than those of other commercial buildings.
The delicate nature of the product is another unfortunate aspect that may lead to dumping milk. If a processor has no room to accept the raw goods, there’s nowhere for them to go. In April The Wall Street Journal reported that in one week, producers threw out as much as 7% of the milk in the United States from that period. The same story highlighted how a specialty cheese factory saw sales of its chèvre and ricotta drop by 95% in one day.
Coping With Dairy Industry Fluctuations
The coronavirus is only one of the challenges likely to impact the dairy industry in the coming months and years. A Statista chart profiles the progressive decline of milk consumption in the United States. The average amount of milk per person in 1975 totaled 247 pounds. It plunged to 149 pounds by 2017.
There’s also the issue of people showing a growing preference for plant-based milk alternatives. One industry analysis tracked sales of traditional and oat milk during mid-March. Purchases for the first category rose by 32%, while oat milk sales soared by 476%. A potential reason for that huge increase in the latter category is that supermarkets sell shelf-stable milk alternatives. Those often stay in date for months when unopened.
People can get them in the refrigerated section, too, but they may have preferred not to as they cut down their shopping trips due to COVID-19. Consumers also noticed the increasing number of milk-like beverages made from hemp, hazelnuts and other options. If a person tries one and doesn’t like it, they may try a different option.
Despite those challenges, some dairy farmers anticipated favorable trends—at least before the coronavirus hit. Producers get paid per 100 pounds of milk. Katie Dotterer-Pyle, owner of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, said 2013 was a particularly good year for the rates. Back then, farmers received about $30 for every 100 pounds, although the price has stayed at approximately $17 per 100 over the past two years.
When Might the Milk Surplus Ease?
This coverage emphasizes the lack of a quick fix for the dairy industry strain. As restaurants reopen, that change should help address the problem, but it won’t solve it entirely. Some enterprises refocused their efforts to better meet current demands. One Dallas-based plant that handles dairy products more than halved its output of cardboard milk cartons and increased production of whole and 2% milk for the retail sector. It is now back to normal manufacturing runs.
As mentioned earlier, though, many processors can’t make such changes. Dumping milk becomes a heart-wrenching practice for hard-working producers. Many tried to compensate by selling their least-profitable cows for slaughter or making feeding changes to reduce the animals’ production. Some private entities committed to purchasing milk from farms and getting it to food banks. Other analysts say the government should step in to help.
People in the farming community support each other with tips and reassurance, but most know they could be in for a long struggle. As supply chains recovered from the initial shock of COVID-19, most people stopped panic buying, and stores no longer set product limits. Things are moving in the right direction, but the impacts remain present.
A Complicated Issue
Many state leaders have let businesses reopen, and others are following. Any step toward a new kind of normal is a positive one that should gradually help the dairy sector. However, much of what the future holds remains unknown, mainly since this is a new type of coronavirus, and scientists still have plenty to learn about mitigating it.
As cannabis and CBD edibles and beverages gain in popularity among consumers, the rush to cash-in on market opportunities has resulted in an influx of unregulated and untested products. Recently the FDA increased its scrutiny of cannabis and CBD company websites and social media accountsto make sure they were not making unverified or misleading marketing statements about their products.
To exacerbate the problem of unregulated products, recent scares around vape-related hospitalizations have flooded the news, and the public is looking to the cannabis industry for answers about what it will do to ensure CBD and cannabis products are safe for consumption.
The first step the cannabis business community can take is educating the public on the two types of edibles— tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is heavily regulated. Every batch must be tested before it is released to retail ensuring labeling and dosages are consistent.
Since CBD does not have psychoactive properties, most products do not go through the same testing standards and are far less regulated. An estimated 75% of CBD-only companies do not test their products. Even worse, independent testing has shown that CBD labels are often incorrect or inconsistent with its dosage and ingredient labels.
Both cannabis and CBD companies must advocate for a more regulated and legitimate market. Stricter regulations and testing standards will eventually weed out the bad players who are hoping to make a quick buck from those that intend to manufacture quality products that can benefit the health of consumers.
Short Cuts To Boost Profits
The current vape pen crisis underscores the lack of regulation and inconsistency in the CBD market. CBD-exclusive vapes are more likely to use cutting agents, whereas licensed THC vape companies are more likely to use pure cannabis oils and are required to undergo quality control testing.
Using cutting agents may lower operating costs, but often results in an inferior or dangerous product. Cutting agents also inhibit crystallization in CBD oils and increase the shelf life of a product. The cost of production for pure THC or CBD oil is $5–6 per gram, but a cutting agent can reduce the cost down to $0.10–$2 per gram.
With edibles, untested CBD products can introduce Salmonella or E.coli into the supply chain. This oversight could severely hurt the reputation of growers and manufacturers if a serious outbreak occurred.
Learn more about important regulatory & quality issues in the cannabis space from Cannabis Industry JournalThe Solution Is in Testing
Unlike food manufacturing, where quality controls are in place at the plant, the quality measures for edibles happens in a lab, after a product is manufactured.
Labs test edibles for potency. Both THC and CBD are used for medicinal purposes, and potency testing is critical for accurate dosing. A patient under or over dosing, or taking a poor quality CBD product with additives could detrimentally affect their long-term health.
They will also test for product contamination. Both CBD and THC cannabis can become contaminated with microbes (i.e., mold, mildew, bacteria and yeast), pesticides and heavy metals throughout the process of growing, cultivation and processing. Contamination is especially concerning because many medical marijuana patients are immunosuppressed and cannot fight off potentially dangerous infections and illnesses arising from these contaminants.
But even for the general population, cannabis and CBD contamination can cause serious health issues. Molds and bacteria such as aspergillus, Salmonella and E. coli present safety risks, and toxicity from sustained exposure to heavy metals can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues and kidney failure, among other issues. Fortunately for consumers, cannabis products sold in licensed dispensaries must all undergo contamination and quality control testing per state regulations.
However, because quality control measures are not required for edible manufacturers, there is no oversight that food-grade ingredients are used or that practices to avoid cross-contamination are used.
What Companies Can Do To Win Back Trust
Customers around the country are rightfully concerned about the safety and quality of their cannabis and CBD products in light of recent news surrounding vape-related illnesses. This is the perfect opportunity for manufacturers and consumer brands to seize on the subject and educate consumers about cannabinoids so they aren’t turned off from incorporating CBD into their lifestyles.
First and foremost, test all products. At a minimum, companies should be adhering to state cannabis market regulations, even if they are just producing CBD. As the FDA rolls out more concrete regulations for CBD, which was only federally legalized last year, it is in the best interest of all CBD companies to meet FDA guidelines preemptively so products can pass inspection at a later date.
Find a good credible lab to help with formulations and inputs. With edibles and beverages, there is more room to introduce contaminants within that scope.
Hire food safety experts to help elevate safety standards and meet FDA regulations. Some forward-thinking companies are starting to hire quality experts from food manufacturing to get ready for broader federal acceptance.
Help educate consumers on why the brand is better, based on inputs and testing.
Consumers should also conduct their own research regarding individual CBD companies’ supply chains and manufacturing standards. Transparent companies will do this proactively, providing cultivation information and lab results for their customers.
In the end, the safest place to buy cannabis and CBD products is a licensed dispensary. It is the responsibility of growers, distributors, manufacturers and retailers to keep the legal market safe and free from contaminants that could threaten the industry. The regulated cannabis space has advanced significantly in the past few years, and companies must set the highest manufacturing standards to maintain this forward momentum. Education and testing are the best solutions to ensure a safe and trusted cannabis marketplace.
It is not really surprising that alcoholic beverages are the target of fraudsters. However, it is certainly not the norm to find counterfeited spirits in the heart of Europe sporting big brand names. Whether the products discovered at an illegal factory in Knockbridge, Ireland contain any adulterants other than ethyl alcohol is not known, however, a warning about potential danger to public health was issued, since the beverages were not made under controlled conditions.
Over the last two decades I have had the utmost privilege to work with food manufacturers from every sector. From dried goods, meats, poultry, school lunches programs, etcetera. I have seen almost everything. The leading trend I have seen over the last 20 years is the steady rise of beverage companies. Everyone likes a different type of beverage: Water, juice, cold coffee, teas, energy drinks, kombucha… the list goes on. The two most important things a small company entering the market needs to remember is to make sure that first, you can comply with the regulators, and second, that the people you are selling your products to also understand their market (buyers and retailers).
The marketplace loves new and innovative products. We need, as an industry, to continue to support innovation in the beverage industry. Healthcare trends, nutraceuticals, supplements, and “fresh” are some of the many things consumers are looking for in a product. We often have questions such as, “I have the perfect recipe for a new beverage product—how do we get it out into the market?” The first question to ask yourself is: Do you understand your product and its intended use? And, second: Do you understand how the physical properties of this product impact how it will need to be transported as well as stored and used by the final consumer? Both of these questions come back to—and can be answered by—food safety. Companies can have the greatest product ideas; however, if you do not have the ability to make sure it has a safety factor during transportation, as well as the ability to communicate your food safety plan, an entrepreneur can jeopardize the future of their company before it is even allowed to begin.
I have used the analogy that food safety best practices are like a sport—the more you train, practice and focus on the “basics done well,” the better your plan will be on a day-to-day basis. Bottom line: The focus is making the food supply safer. Please take note the transition to new practices does not mean that an existing HACCP plan (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) is invalid! As a matter of fact, HACCP and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s) should be looked at as the foundation of FSMA’s Preventive Controls for Human Food. Local departments of public health still rely on HACCP as their main line of defense for the food safety industry. We have seen so many small processors and restaurants that have inspections where HACCP is still the focus, even though Preventive Controls has some more advanced techniques for protection. Both HACCP and Preventive Controls focus on making sure you have good sanitation practices, employee training, and have done a hazard analysis for biological, chemical and physical hazards. I believe the lines are blurring a bit—companies, academics and regulators don’t often understand the differences between the two and, to be honest, the differences are not that substantial from a fundamental level. Ultimately, companies are responsible for their own food safety best practices.
As we trend toward new and innovative beverage concepts, we need to be partners with both our regulators and our customers. There is so much information across the United States and companies that are in emerging markets will only grow and develop if they have proper food safety plans as a foundation. Emerging companies should get connected early and learn from other companies and organizations, and become more proactively involved in the food safety element of their product.
I believe 2019 will be an incredible year for the rise of food and beverage startups. We have already seen much growth in the knowledge of food supply due to easily accessible information about products. Keeping a transparent conversation with regulatory personnel and customers is key to the success of any food or beverage company.
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