Investigating food fraud
What’s too good to be true?
Written by Stefanie Wallace
Many chefs are confident in what the label reads when it comes to purchasing food and ingredients. Extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella cheese are two products that are probably widely used in your operation, but do you know if you’re getting what you’re paying for?
Food fraud (formally known as economic adulteration) happens in different forms, including diluting or substituting a product with a lesser-value ingredient and mislabelling. Although the issue seems to have been making recent headlines, food fraud is nothing new.
“If you go back to biblical times, there was the adulteration of wine – water dilution,” says Dr. Nicholas Low, a professor of food and bioproduct sciences at the University of Saskatchewan who is researching a commercially viable tracing system in hopes of ending food fraud. Low lists some of the earliest recorded instances of adulteration, including treating tea leaves with black lead to change the colour, leading people to believe the tea leaves were fresh. Lead was also added to candy at one time to give it bright colours, causing lead poisoning.
More recently, Low says, food fraud isn’t typically a human health concern. “It’s really economic fraud that is the major issue,” he says, noting that although there have been cases where an adulterant has been used in a food product that has caused injury or death, these instances are few and far between. “I’m certainly not saying that adulteration can’t cause health problems, but, in general, it’s really that the consumer is just not getting what they’re paying for.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)’s primary focus is to ensure that Canadians consume safe food. However, in an e-mail interview, Lisa Gauthier, with the CFIA’s media relations department, said the agency is also responsible for the administration of food labelling policies related to misrepresentation and fraud in respect to food labelling, packaging and advertising. Gauthier said the CFIA “protects consumers from economic fraud and product misrepresentation, and assists them in making informed product choices.” Among others, CFIA activities including establishing and enforcing standards for net quantity and labelling, advertising and product claims, composition, substitution and adulteration.
Low has seen several cases of economic adulteration in his 25 years of experience in the field. “It’s a real scientific challenge to take a look at a product and determine if it’s what it’s supposed to be – or, at least, what it declares itself to be,” he says.
After working with the European Union in Italy for a year, Low became familiar with the potential for adulteration of mozzarella cheese. “I thought I had been exposed to mozzarella cheese in North America, and I hadn’t been,” he says.
“Mozzarella cheese is really a very soft cheese, and it’s made from water buffalo milk, and the mozzarella that we get here is made from bovine milk or from vegetable oil and milk casing.” Low notes instances where nut protein has been used to create cheese instead of milk protein, causing health issues for people with nut allergies, but is hesitant to call this economic adulteration. The CFIA is vigilant when it comes to investigating economic adulteration in cheese. Gauthier said a CFIA inspector will verify labels, ingredients and compositional compliance at registered facilities that produce cheese. “If there is a suspicion that a cheese has been adulterated, it can be sent for analysis to ensure no additives or undeclared ingredients are present above the permitted level. A CFIA inspector verifies that a company claiming to use cheese is actually using cheese and not a ‘dairy pizza topping’ or another ingredient.”
The extra-virgin scandal
The flavour and health benefits of olive oil have made it a popular ingredient among chefs of late. But as Tom Mueller, an American journalist living in Italy, has discovered, there is much more to olive oil than what the label reads. Mueller released a book in November, titled Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, in which he explores olive oil fraud. For his book, Mueller interviewed olive oil producers in Italy about the history and frequency of fraud in their coveted product. One producer told him that 50 per cent of olive oil sold in the United States is adulterated in one way or another.
By definition, extra-virgin olive oil is the product of crushed green olives, and is not refined by heat, by chemical solvents or in any other way. Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil. To pass certification as extra virgin, each batch of olive oil must meet a series of chemical standards established by the International Olive Council (IOC) and the European Union. Many of the extra-virgin olive oils available on grocery store shelves in North America don’t meet these requirements and are diluted with other types of oil, such as canola or sunflower. The CFIA closely monitors olive oil through facility inspections, label reviews and product testing, including verification of the product’s composition, Gauthier said. “Samples taken are analyzed to check for misrepresentation of other oils as olive oil and to verify the standards for virgin and extra-virgin olive oil are met.”
Between January 2009 and December 2011, the CFIA tested 111 products and the results concluded that 10 per cent of the products were misrepresented as olive oil, not meeting the IOC standards for olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil. Gauthier noted that the CFIA usually targets inspections, and some products are sampled because they are the subject of consumer or trade complaints of potential adulteration. “When a product is found to be adulterated, inspectors may expand the sampling to other olive oil brands and products carried by the same importer, or products coming from the same broker or country of origin as the adulterated sample.”
You say tomato . . .
A case of tomato fraud recently made headlines in the United States: Scott Salyer, the former owner of a California-based processed-tomato company, pleaded guilty to federal charges of racketeering and price fixing in March. SK Foods “sold substandard product at fraudulently inflated prices,” according to a recent newspaper article. Salyer admitted he ordered former employees to falsify tomato paste grading factors, and the company lied about the percentage of natural tomato soluble solids, mould count, product date and organic status of its product, according to Salyer’s plea agreement. Salyer was awaiting sentencing at press time. The CFIA verifies fresh fruits and vegetables in Canada, whether imported or domestically grown and traded, by inspecting products for their safety and inspecting packages for compliance with the federal grade, packaging and labelling requirements. Gauthier said labelling inspections of fresh fruits and vegetables would be conducted by the CFIA in response to possible violations of the Food and Drug Act.
Can you spot the difference?
There are different ways to tell if a product has been adulterated – colour, or taste, for example. But it’s also possible that an adulterated product won’t appear any different. Both Low and the CFIA say the best way to tell is by looking at the price. “If the price is too good to be true, red flags should come up and warning bells should go off,” Low says.
Dr. Nicholas Low, professor of food and bioproduct sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Robert Hanner, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of Guelph, have been working on a way to trade food products internally. “A company could put an internal tracer in a food product and could monitor the food product from farm to fork,” Low says. When the real product is compared to a potentially adulterated similar product, the company would be able to tell which one they produced. “Secondly, a company could also take a look at their ingredients . . . and could say ‘we added this tag to our ingredient, or our product,’” he adds. If, during inspection, the tag isn’t there, the company will know its product has been adulterated. The project is about two years along, Low says, and pilot studies have been completed.