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.
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
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).
Increased demand worldwide, supply that cannot keep up, and a product that is easy to fake makes an attractive setup for fraudsters to jump on the lucrative business of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Olive oil fraud is as old as olive oil itself, and it still flies under the radar because government agencies set priorities on what they consider more dangerous food fraud issues. EVOO is very simple to fake, and without laboratory tests, fraudulent oils often remain undetected. Fraudsters are not caught very often, and usually the existing laws do not severely punish such fraud.
Food forgery cases keep raising great concerns about consumers’ health and safety all over the world. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply in Brazil prohibited sales of nine brands of fake olive oil. A criminal organization sold soybean oil as extra virgin olive oil under fictitious labels. All oils sold under these brands are being pulled from the market and destroyed. Several Brazilian agencies were working together on this case, including the Consumer Protection Police (Decon).
Food fraud can have a substantial impact on a consumer’s health, like in this case of fruit juice that was sold (including to school lunch programs) in spite of contamination with arsenic and mycotoxins. The fruit used for the juice was decomposing, and also processed in a facility that unacceptably violated hygiene and food safety standards. The FDA filed a lawsuit against the company, which in the meantime has ceased operations.
Herbs remain a target for fraudsters. The latest investigation of sage samples by the Institute of Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast used a combination of spectroscopic and chemometric methods to check whether sage contained 100% of the actual herb. One quarter of samples from the UK included unapproved (fortunately, no hazardous) bulk material, such as tree leaves, some in significant concentrations of more than half of the product.
“Sage News”. (November 9, 2020). The Hippocratic Post.
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.
Honey harvest in Europe is predicted to be down by 40% in 2020. This disastrous harvest is caused by a combination of issues, including flood, draught and climate change in a variety of regions. One third of honey into the EU is imported, and cheap, sometimes fake imports are undercutting EU producers’ prices. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre states that at least 14% of honeys in the EU are adulterated. Two recent incidents of honey adulteration in Greece show that this is a serious problem and possibly an indication of more fraudulent activity to come.
Europol, the European police authority, estimates that up to 15% of pesticides are unapproved or counterfeit, resulting an annual impact of more than $6.5 billion on the legitimate pesticide industry. It is often unknown what ingredients are in these counterfeit products. Such substances, often sold online, can pose serious health and environmental risks. During the first half of 2020, Europol has seized a record amount of unapproved pesticides. Profit margins for criminals are very high due to relatively low production costs for pesticides. Criminals avoid the tedious, expensive and lengthy approval processes which are usually contributing significantly to the pesticides’ costs.
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