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.
Fraudulent food and beverage products can be found even in large supermarket chains. Counterfeit Starbucks VIA instant coffee was seized from Chinese supermarket chains in Beijing and Jinagsu province. Only Starbucks coffee shops and an authorized online retail platform are allowed to sell Starbucks instant coffee. The counterfeit products displayed (of course, fake) anti-forgery labels, different cover art, a different number of packs in each packet, a significantly longer expiration date, and ironically, a significantly higher retail price. The police arrested several suspects and found unsanitary conditions at the counterfeit coffee manufacturing site.
People like to ask “what is the next melamine?” Of course, this is an impossible question to answer. However, methods of perpetrating food fraud are rarely novel. Even melamine had a history of use in feed products for nitrogen enhancement.
Examples of recurring food fraud in recent history include:
Herbs and spices: High-value commodities, especially when sold in dried, flaked or ground form, have been targets of fraud for ages. Although recent work looking specifically at oregano shed new light on the problems in that particular herb, the group as a whole is long known to be prone to substitution with other plant material and addition of dyes to improve color. Lead chromate and lead oxide have both been used in spices to add color. A recent study in the United States conducted testing on spices recovered from the homes of children diagnosed with lead poisoning and determined that some lead poisoning cases can be attributed to high levels of lead in spices consumed by children.
Milk: Milk has been repeatedly prone to the addition of protein-mimicking compounds such as urea, the addition of other fats such as vegetable oil, and the addition of preservatives such as formaldehyde. Melamine addition to milk discovered in 2008 was not entirely novel. The addition of melamine to artificially enhance the apparent protein content of a product was documented in scientific papers in the 1980s.1
Liquor: Alcoholic beverages are also a high-value target, especially if they are a popular brand. Counterfeit alcohol is a common form of food fraud cited in the Food Fraud Database. Unfortunately, the use of methanol in unregulated liquor production repeatedly results in illnesses and deaths in consumers.
What forms of food fraud will be common in the coming years? Millennials reportedly place value on sustainability, convenience, high protein, and production practices such as organic and “local.” Verifying claims around production practices through long food supply chains is notoriously challenging. Increasing interest by consumers in these types of label claims may increase this type of fraud in the future.
Bisaz, R., and A. Kummer. “Determination of 2, 4, 6-triamino-1, 3, 5-triazine (melamine) in potatoe proteins.” Mitt. Gebiete Lebensm. Hyg 74 (1983): 74-79.
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