Organic fraud cases are on the increase and often, the criminals get away with these crimes. The USDA-OIG catching a multi-million dollar case like this one represents just the tip of the iceberg. Over the course of five years, the operator of a grain and seed business misrepresented his products as organic, claiming premium prices and defrauding clients of millions of dollars. Transactions for money and documents crossed multiple state lines in the United States through several related business entities. The business owner was sentenced to several years in prison and hefty fines for wire fraud, money laundering, and for defrauding the National Organic Program.
Inspector Meerkat checking in with this week’s food fraud investigation: While scanning the Food Fraud Database, I found that coconut oil was recently added to the site. There have been six reported incidents of fraud in coconut oil since 2013, with the most recent incident reported May 2019. Five of the incidents involved coconut oils produced in India, and one incident involved products from the Philippines. Reasons for adulteration include fraudulent labeling claims, dilution or substitution with an alternate ingredient, and misrepresentation of botanical origin.
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.
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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