Even unprocessed fruit can be a target for food fraudsters. Fraudulent fruit does not only damage a company’s brand, but it also may have pesticide and other residue levels above the permitted limit. Counterfeit branding and packaging was used in exports of 2 tons of lemons from China. It is not the first time that such fraud happened and the affected company won a lawsuit earlier this year. To prevent such mislabeling in the future, the company finally registered its brand with Chinese authorities.
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.
Based on a classification system that was established more than 150 years ago, wines from the world-renowned region of Bordeaux can fetch high prices and enjoy a high degree of recognition and popularity. The Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) and Chinese authorities set a precedent by sentencing a wine supplier for offering fake “Bordeaux” wines. Nearly 10,000 bottles of mislabeled “Bordeaux” wines were seized, and the guilty judgment included fines and a suspended prison sentence.
Coordination among the various agencies and laboratories responsible for food safety is an ongoing challenge. Coordination and standardization of laboratories and methods related to food authenticity testing can be even more challenging. As noted in the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks (conducted following the 2013 horsemeat incident):
“Official controls of food authenticity require a wide range of analytical and molecular biological techniques, many with exacting instrumentation requirements and in-depth scientific interpretation of the datasets generated. No single institution…could field the complete range of such techniques with the required expertise.”
One of the recommendations in Elliott Review was the establishment of an “Authenticity Assurance Network” to facilitate standardized approaches to food authenticity testing. This network would also enable better coordination among government departments related to policies, surveillance and criminal investigation around food fraud. The Food Authenticity Network (FAN) was subsequently established in 2015 by the U.K. government and serves as a repository for news and information on best practices for food authenticity testing methods and food fraud mitigation. At the heart of FAN, there is a network of laboratories that provide authenticity testing, which are designated as Food Authenticity Centers of Expertise (CoE). A contact person is named for every CoE so that stakeholders can communicate with them regarding food authenticity testing. There is a call currently open for UK Food Authenticity Centres of Expertise, so take a look and see if your laboratory fits the requirements.
Over the past four years, FAN has grown to more than 1,500 members from 68 countries/territories and in 2019, more than 12,000 unique users accessed information on the network’s website.
The site currently hosts 101 government reports, 77 standard operating procedures (SOPs), 16 survey reports, and 22 reports on nitrogen factors (which are used for meat and fish content calculations). Importantly, the site also includes a section on food fraud mitigation, which signposts some of the world’s leading services, guidance and reports aimed at preventing fraud from occurring.
FAN posts periodic newsletters with updates on funded projects, research reports, government activity, upcoming conferences, and other news of interest related to assuring the integrity of food. The latest newsletter has just been issued.
In its efforts to create a truly global network, as well as reaching out to the international food community, FAN is collaborating with other governments. In 2019, Selvarani Elahi gave presentations on FAN in Ghana and Vietnam, and discussions are currently taking place with the Ghana Food and Drugs Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency about creating bespoke country-specific pages. In 2018, FAN was recognized at a Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting as being a “leading example of an integrity network.” Discussions are also in progress with multiple Codex Member countries.
FAN is an open access platform and membership is free (you can sign up here). The benefits of membership include access to closed discussion fora on the site, customizable email alerts, and options to communicate with other network members, as well as a monthly highlights email that rounds up the month’s activities in one convenient location.
Due to extensive opportunities for fraud, the lack of an adequate monitoring system, cost pressures in the industry, and lack of transparency in the food supply chain, amongst other factors, fraudulent food products still pose a significant risk within the hospitality industry. A recent study discusses the food service food fraud vulnerability assessment (FS-FFCA), showing as an example that one-third of extra virgin olive oil samples at restaurants and catering facilities were adulterated. More tools are urgently needed to protect consumers and legitimate operations from illicit activities.
Aged Scotch whisky can cost a fortune. For example, a bottle of Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 was auctioned off for $1.9 million. What a perfect target for counterfeiters! Nuclear science to the rescue: Scientists at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center have developed a method to determine a whisky’s age. The radioactive fallout from the detonation of atomic bombs in the 1950s and 1960s has enabled scientists to create a Carbon-14 calibration curve based on whiskies with known age.
Unfortunately, alcoholic beverages are also prone to fraud involving the addition of substances that can cause illness or death. This often happens at the local level, with the production of “moonshine” or other unlicensed spirits. Some of the substances used have included methanol, isopropyl alcohol and industrial-grade alcohol.
One notable incident from the 1980s had global implications and severe market effects. Diethylene glycol was added to Austrian wines, resulting in recalls around the world when the adulteration was detected. Fortunately, no illnesses or deaths were reported. Just a year later, methanol added to Italian wine caused both hospitalizations and deaths. More recently, incidents involving the addition of methanol to spirits have caused deaths in India, China and Malaysia.
Authentication and traceability for alcoholic beverages, and specifically wines, lend themselves to technology-enabled solutions such as blockchain. On a lighter note, take a look at some of the labels documented by reporters covering the wine market in China. In a high value marketplace such as the wine business, there is no end to creativity in labeling.
Booze bootleggers are still quite active since there is a lot of money exchanging hands in the high-end wine and liquor business. Fake premium Penfolds wines, which can fetch several hundred dollars per bottle, as well as acclaimed brands of adulterated whisky, were discovered and seized in a liquor store in Cambodia. Besides the fake beverages, the raid also uncovered fake labels and packaging materials.
In a large study of nearly 6000 products, more than a quarter (27%) of herbal medicines and foods sold in 37 countries on six continents was found to be deliberately or accidentally adulterated. In this study, the products, which came in a variety of forms such as softgels, tea and more, were analyzed with high throughput DNA sequencing and showed mislabeling, added fillers, substituted ingredients or contaminants. Such fraud can be a harmful to consumer health and safety, and must be monitored and tracked closely.
Ichim, M.C. (October 24, 2019). “The DNA-Based Authentication of Commercial Herbal Products Reveals Their Globally Widespread Adulteration”. “Stejarul” Research Centre for Biological Sciences, National Institute of Research and Development for Biological Sciences, Piatra Neamt, Romania. Frontiers in Pharmacology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.01227/full.
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.
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