Food fraud is hidden in plain sight: Opinion

The global food chain is complex, and there’s an increased risk that consumers are purchasing power quality food than what they paid for

The globalization of the food chain has resulted in increased complexity and diminished transparency and trust into how and where our foods are grown, harvested, processed and by whom.

Furthermore, recurring incidents of food fraud remind us that some of those involved in the food chain are exploiting this complexity. Today, consumers are at an increased risk of buying lower-quality food than what they paid for, or worse, eating food with unsafe ingredients or undeclared allergens.

READ: Food fraud test kits help consumers detect mislabelling

Historically, food chain transparency and trust was established between the shopper and the farmer or fishmonger, green grocer, butcher, milkman and baker. Dutch scholar Arthur Mol argued this personal interaction enabled face-to-face transparency, which built trust.

Before modern supermarkets, a local village or town grocery store stocked up to 300 items grown or processed within a 240-kilometre radius. In comparison, our post-modern supermarkets carry an average of 33,000 items that travel 2,400 kilometres or more. The Canadian government is poised to tackle that problem by announcing a Buy Canadian food campaign.

While the extent of global food fraud is difficult to quantify, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suggests food fraud affects 10% of commercially sold food. Various academic and industry sources suggest that globally, food fraud ranges from US$10 billion to $49 billion. This is likely a conservative range considering estimates of fake Australian meats alone and sold worldwide are as high as AUD$4 billion, or more than US$2.5 billion.

If you add the sales of fake wines and alcohol, adulterated honey and spices, mislabelled fish and false claims of organic products, wild-caught fish or grain-fed meat, the numbers, and risks, increase significantly.

Are Canadian regulations adequate?

Regulations are in place to protect Canadians. The Safe Food for Canadians Act (known as the SFCR) and the Food and Drug Act work together to protect Canadian consumers from food safety and food fraud risks.

The SFCR states that food businesses must have preventative controls in place as well as product traceability records to ensure imported products meet Canadian laws.

A section of the act declares:

"No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety"

But are the regulations being enforced?

The CFIA is very active in food fraud prevention and detection. In July 2019, the agency received $24.4 million in new food fraud funding after announcing that 12,800 kilograms of adulterated honey was blocked from entering the Canadian market. Honey adulteration is the process of cutting pure honey with fillers and cheaper sweeteners, including corn syrup.

The CFIA has several enforcement instruments it can apply to offenders including administrative monetary penalties, licence suspension or cancellation and criminal prosecution.

Mislabelled fish, sausage

The University of Guelph's Biodiversity Institute, in partnership with the CFIA, has published a number of research papers uncovering food fraud and revealing the mislabelling of fish species in Canadian restaurants and grocery stores.

In January 2019, the institute published a paper entitled Re-visiting the occurrence of undeclared species in sausage products sold in Canada as a followup to a previous study that showed a 20% mislabelling rate for sausages.

The followup indicated 14% of the 100 sausages tested still contained meat DNA that was undeclared on the label. Even more concerning for the public is that many types of food fraud and mislabelling have gone undetected. New technology and methods of testing still has to catch up.

As social media amplifies recurring high-profile incidents of food fraud, trust in our global food supply chains remains a concern. For the foreseeable future, much of Canada's food fraud remains hidden in plain sight, sitting right there on our grocery store shelves.

John G. Keogh, researcher, food chain transparency, technology and supply chains, University of Reading

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