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As we write this, there are more news reports every day of new products that have been found to contain horse meat in the European horse meat scandal. Horse meat substitution is unfortunately only the most recent example of food fraud, and horse isn’t the only meat being substituted. According to the Daily Mail on February 25, seven in 10 lamb kabobs sold in British takeout restaurants were bulked up with cheaper meats. Food Manufacture reported on March 14 that pork DNA had been found in a school’s halal chicken sausages. Yahoo! News reported that 90 percent of South African kudu (antelope) jerky was actually horse, pork, beef, giraffe, kangaroo—or even endangered mountain zebra.
Food comprises a globally distributed infrastructure, with the U.S. both importing from and exporting to more countries in food and agriculture than in any other sector. Importing large quantities of food products from other countries makes us reliant upon the food safety systems of those countries. Regulatory or quality assurance deficiencies in any part of the food supply chain can leave us vulnerable to contamination or adulteration. Increased prices can also leave the food supply vulnerable to adulteration since they can result in changes to the supply chain structure. Ensuring food safety requires identifying and mitigating potential risks along the supply chain. Food safety demands that these risks be identified and they can only be addressed if there is a good understanding of the supply chain and the product is authentic. Furthermore, the need for food defense is heightened by the globalized supply chain, and the possibility of deliberate contamination and adulteration—either with the intent to cause harm or generate extra profit. Since we cannot have complete food safety without effective food defense, food quality cannot be assured without a comprehensive food protection program that addresses both food safety and food defense.
Food fraud, or what the FDA calls economically motivated adulteration (EMA), is the intentional sale of food products that are not up to recognized standards for economic gain. This includes the addition of inferior or foreign substances to a food, dilution with water, or the intentional mislabeling of food products. Food fraud may be receiving heightened media attention in recent months, but it is an old problem that was addressed by U.S. food laws as far back as 1784. While usually harmless, some food fraud incidents have resulted in serious public health consequences, and they illustrate vulnerabilities in regulatory and quality assurance systems that could be exploited for intentional harm.
In today’s environment, there is a strong financial motivation for food fraud. In the ongoing case involving six companies accused of conspiring to illegally import honey, the defendants allegedly avoided almost $80 million in anti-dumping duties by falsely declaring the country of origin. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that adulterated food products cost industry 10 to 15 billion dollars a year and the problem is thought to be widespread. The Food Standards Agency of the U.K. has estimated 10 percent of the food we buy on the shelf may be adulterated. In most cases, the adulteration doesn’t pose a health risk since the motivation is not intended to cause harm. Unfortunately, by not understanding their actions, perpetrators have created risks to human and animal health.
Understanding the Scope of the Problem
Since the perpetrators of food fraud do not intend to cause health harm and know how to get around quality assurance testing methodologies, food fraud incidents frequently evade detection. This makes it challenging to know the true scope of fraud in the food supply. The National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) has conducted an extensive literature and media search for documented incidents of food fraud since 1980. This search has resulted in over 200 isolated incidents of food fraud in many categories of products, including seafood, oils, wine, dairy products, and fruit juices (see chart above). The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention has also compiled a food fraud database, using a different methodology (www.foodfraud.org). Both databases contribute valuable information about what is known about the history of food fraud. However, what is represented in the databases is almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true scope of food fraud.