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What’s on your plate? The threat of food fraud

Have you ever thought about counterfeit cuisine while tucking into your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner?

Food fraud, the criminal activity of making profit by substituting expensive ingredients for cheaper ones, hit the headlines in Britain when the horse-meat scandal broke out in 2013. After retailers, such as Asda and Tesco, admitted to unwittingly selling horse-meat in the form of burgers, lasagne, and even diced meat, shocked consumers demanded a guarantee that it would never happen again. But the 2013 case was just the tip of the iceberg; as food fraudsters have increasing opportunities to break into supermarkets’ supply chains, consumers need to be aware of risks.

A growing, global problem

Fake food is being sold in alarming quantities around the world and recent findings show that the issue is on the rise. In 2018 food fraud was estimated to cost the European food and drink industry £12bn. These costs can be from being charged for inadequate or mislabelled ingredients, or recalls or reputational damage if an item enters the supply chain. (Deloitte 2018).

The COVID pandemic and Brexit have further complicated supply chains, with reduced supply and increasing costs providing the perfect opportunity for counterfeit foods to flood the market.

Examples of food fraud can include replacements of inferior low grade products falsely claiming to be more expensive items such as organic, in order to be sold at higher prices. At a higher level of safety risk are tampered expiry dates, meat waste, prohibited for human consumption, found in meat products, and mis or unlabelled peanuts in other nut products which can cause death.

Although counterfeiting day-to-day consumer goods (like orange juice, or honey) may seem less lucrative than the trade of fake luxury products, for example, the food market provides many opportunities for criminals. As the production of food is increasingly a multinational, complicated and largely anonymous process, fraudsters can interfere at several stages without being caught. Consumer demand for cheap food and trivial penalties for criminals (the most drastic sentences being between one and two years) also contribute to the size of the problem. Food fraud is suspected in 5-10% of the world grocery trade and after the horsemeat scandal, PwC estimated the global fake food market to be worth $40 billion (£31 billion) a year.

Popular fake foods- and what consumers can do

While rare and expensive foods, such as Kobe beef, or manuka honey, are popular targets of fraudsters (an investigation found that only seven brands in UK supermarkets labelled as the priciest kind of honey were actually selling the real thing), fraud lurks behind cheaper products as well. Counterfeit fish is especially common; a US study revealed between 67 and 90% of Red Snapper fish was fake. Olive oil has traditionally been a prime example; although improvements have been claimed since a 2016 study showing that 80% of Italian extra virgin olive oil was not genuine. Products falsely marked as ‘extra virgin’ are usually mixed with other oils, or can even be simple vegetable oil with added colouring and aroma.

While British Food has improved since the National Food Crime Unit was established (partly as a response to the horse meat scandal) the global reach and complexity of the food supply chain can make monitoring and prevention difficult, with crime groups involved in fake food trade often having detailed knowledge of the types of tests food can go through, helping them slip under the radar of screenings.

The best way to avoid buying counterfeits is by buying seasonal and local foods, with the most simple supply chains. As in all shopping, “caveat emptor” means that a price too good to be true for a premium product should always be seen as a warning sign.

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