Honey continues to be a popular target for fraudulent activity, as this latest case shows. A large number of batches of honey imported into Greece from inside and outside the European Union contained adulterants like added sugars and prohibited caramel colors, which was proven by chemical analysis. Honey produced in Greece was not affected. The adulterated products were immediately withdrawn from the market and the public was advised not to consume them.
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).
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.
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.
Honey is an easy target for food fraud and adulteration with sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses and other sugars are not uncommon. To quickly identify adulterants, a method using Raman spectroscopy and pattern recognition analysis was developed. To verify the method, 97 samples were tested with the new method, and the tests confirmed with HPLC, with the result that 17% of the commercial honey samples showed fraud from added sugars.
Honey is defined as “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees” from the nectar of plants. However, there is not currently an FDA standard of identity for honey in the United States, which would further define and specify the allowed methods of producing, manufacturing and labeling honey (there is, however, a nonbinding guidance document for honey). Some of the details of honey production that a standard of identity might address include allowable timing and levels of supplemental feeding of bees with sugar syrups and the appropriate use of antibiotics for disease treatment.
In circumstances where strict regulatory standards for foods are not available, they may be created by other organizations.
What Is a Food Standard?
A food standard is “a set of criteria that a food must meet if it is to be suitable for human consumption, such as source, composition, appearance, freshness, permissible additives, and maximum bacterial content.”1
To ensure quality, facilitate trade, and reduce fraud, everyone in the supply chain must have a shared expectation of what each food or ingredient should be. Public standards set those expectations and allow them to be shared. They help ensure that stakeholders have a common definition of quality and purity, as well as the test methods and specifications used to demonstrate that quality and purity. Public standards help ensure fair trade, quality and integrity in food supply chains.
How Is a Standard Different from a Method?
A method is generally an analytical technique to assess a particular property of the content or safety of a food or food ingredient. For example, methods for detection of nitrates in meat products or baby food, coliforms in nut products, or high fructose syrups in honey. Methods are an important component of food standards.
A food standard goes a step further and provides an integrated set of components to define a substance and enable verification of that substance. Standards generally include a description of the substance and its function, one or more identification tests and assays (along with acceptance criteria) to appropriately characterize the substance and ensure its quality, a description of possible impurities and limits for those impurities (if applicable), and other information as needed (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Anatomy of an FCC Standard (Source: Food Science Program, Food Chemicals Codex, USP)
A standard defines both what a food or food ingredient should be and documents how to demonstrate compliance with that definition.
Public Standards and Food Fraud Prevention
Many of the foods prone to fraud are those that are not simple food ingredients, but agricultural products that can be more complex to characterize and identify (such as honey, extra virgin olive oil, spices, etc.). Milk products are an example of a commodity that is prone to fraud with a wide range of adulterants (for example, fluid cow’s milk is associated with 155 adulterants in the Food Fraud Database). Ensuring the quality and purity of a product link milk requires implementation of multiple analytical techniques or the development of non-targeted methods.
The creation of effective public standards with input by a range of stakeholders will be particularly important for ensuring the quality, safety and accurate labeling of these high value commodities in the future.
A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition 2005, Oxford University Press.
The Food Chemicals Codex is a source of public standards for foods and food ingredients. It was created by the U.S. FDA and the National Institute of Medicine in 1966 and is currently published by the nonprofit organization USP. The FCC contains 1250 standards for food ingredients, which are developed by expert volunteers and posted for public comment before publication.
The Decernis Food Fraud Database is a continuously updated collection of food fraud records curated specifically to support vulnerability assessments. Information is gathered from global sources and is searchable by ingredient, adulterant, country, and hazard classification. Decernis also partners with standards bodies to provide information about fraudulent adulterants to support standards development.
Today FDA released the results of its yearly report on pesticide residues, and the good news is that of the 6504 samples taken, most of them were below EPA tolerance levels. As part of the Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program for FY 2017, FDA tested for 761 pesticides and industrial chemicals in domestic and imported foods for animals and humans. The following are some highlights of the FDA’s findings:
Percentage of foods compliant with federal standards
96.2% of domestic human foods
89.6% of imported human foods
98.8% domestic animal foods
94.4% imported animal foods
Percentage of food samples without pesticide residues
Milk and game meat: 100%
Shell egg: 87.5%
Percentage of food samples without glyphosate or glufosinate residues
Milk and eggs: 100%
“Ensuring the safety of the American food supply is a critical part of the work of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Our annual efforts to test both human and animal foods for pesticide residues in foods is important as we work to limit exposure to any pesticide residues that may be unsafe,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of FDA’s CFSAN, in an agency release. “We will continue to do this important monitoring work, taking action when appropriate, to help ensure our food supply remains among the safest in the world.”
Food safety and food labeling are strictly regulated in Canada and therefore, honey adulterated with sugars labeled as genuine is considered fraudulent. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) investigated Canadian honey samples from various sources within the supply chain, such as importers, blenders, retailers and more. Almost 22% of imported samples were adulterated with added sugars, the domestic (Canadian) samples showed no adulterations. The CFIA will continue monitoring honey imports and take measures to avoid fraudulent products entering the Canadian market.
One of China’s most famous health brands has been banned from making honey and issued a steep fine in China after selling expired honey. For a long time, the brand’s “Premium” honey was a supposedly safe alternative in China compared to “fake” honey, mixed with sugar syrup.
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