Fighting Food Fraud


Prostitution has been dubbed the world’s oldest profession, but being an adulterator of food is a close second. Historical accounts make it clear that people have been altering foods for financial gain since the emergence of trade and bartering.

Sadly, as this issue’s cover article shows, things haven’t changed much (see “Fish and Chips”). As the article notes, a study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the GMA Science and Education Foundation shows that food product fraud may cost the industry $10 to $15 billion per year. And nowhere is this fraud more endemic than in the sale and trade of seafood.

A survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service National Seafood Inspection Laboratory (NSIL) found that 80% of red snapper was mislabeled, and an NSIL study conducted from 1988 through 1997 found that 34% of seafood products were mislabeled. (For more recent data on seafood fraud, see “Fishy Business” in this issue.)

Fortunately, a number of methods are available to determine whether a piece of seafood is actually what it is advertised to be, including isotope ratio analysis and a DNA-based method that uses lab-on-a-chip technology. That was not the case in 1855, however, when Arthur Hill Hassall, MD, edited “Food and its Adulterations: Comprising the Reports of the Analytical Sanitary Commission of The Lancet.” Using what were then state-of-the-art methods, researchers tested and determined the composition of various foodstuffs, ranging from flour to coffee.

One section outlining the findings is “Milk, and its Adulterations.” Researchers examined 26 samples of milk purchased from “different milkmen and dairy-keepers resident in London.” Their findings?

“1st. That twelve were genuine.

2nd. That of these, two showed a deficiency of cream.

3rd. That eleven were adulterated.

4th. That this adulteration consisted, in all cases, of water, the per-centages of which varied from ten to fifty per cent, or one half of the article.

5th. That in no cases was chalk, size, gum, sheep’s brains, or any of the other substances said to be occasionally used for the adulteration of milk, detected.”

I’m sure that readers in 1855 were as relieved as I was by item number five, especially the part about sheep’s brains. But you have to admit, adulteration is quite clever, in a perverse sort of way.

It has always been a cat-and-mouse game, the criminals adulterating food with something as simple as water or as sinister as melamine, or trying to pass off one variety of fish as another, with scientists and regulatory officials working to develop new tools to catch them.

The problem today is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is so overwhelmed in its quest to prevent food contamination that it has few resources to spare to detect food fraud. Some may hope that impending food safety legislation will help, but I don’t think so.

This looks like one of those situations where the food industry needs to tackle the problem on its own, perhaps with something like a Global Food Safety Initiative that specifically focuses on fighting fraud.

Even if industry starts with a few small measures, it will be a step in the right direction.


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