The Many Faces of Food Fraud (Part II)
Its been a busy week onfraud patrol.
Food and Fraud
Consumer groups often lobby for the posting of restaurant inspection reports so the consuming public can use this information when deciding whether or not to patronize an eating establishment. New York City Health Department jumped on the information band wagon this summer and has starting requiring restaurants to display inspections grades in the front window. Well it didnt take long for the cheating to occur. Whether or not you believe that posting inspection grades will be helpful to both consumers and businesses, cheating on the requirement with fake certificates puts companies that follow the rules at a competitive disadvantage. Why is it that food and fraud always go together as suggested by this blogger?
Science to Combat Fraud (Part II)
For any company sourcing ingredients based on protein content, the melamine contamination of pet food in 2007 certainly raised concerns with the test methodologies for total protein which are based on determining nitrogen content. As you will recall, melamine will increase the nitrogen level in a food fraudulently raising the protein content. This scheme may never have been detected if it werent for the deaths of pets in the United States. And it provided the impetus for FDA to give a serious look at stopping economically motivated adulteration.
Publishing in the July issue of Comprehensive Review in Food Science and Food Safety is a scientific review of Total Protein Methods and Their Potential Utility to Reduce the Risk of Food Protein Adulteration. Its good to see the science community looking into ways to detect fraud in foods.
Bending the Truth
Taking liberties with menu descriptions is not just a U.S. phenomenon. A recent story from the UK reveled that restaurants on the other side of the Atlantic have been misleading diners with less-than-truthful descriptions of menu items. Here aresome examples:
- home-made tart actually from a national wholesaler
- home-made soup from a dry soup mix
- fire-roasted vegetables baked in an oven
- free-range eggs were not
And not to be left out, seafood was misrepresented as well:
- fresh mussels and fresh tuna steak were actually frozen
- battered cod or haddock was Pollack, whiting, pangasius
This quote from Jim Potts, Lancashire’s chief trading standards officer, says it all: people had the right to expect that the meals they buy are genuinely described on the menus and price lists. And the investigation didnt require any type of high-tech DNA testing to unearth the fraud. A simple matching up of invoices and ingredients in the store room/cooler/freezer to the menu description was all it took.
What Do You Call a Food Fraudster?
We dont normally run across three separate internet articles about food fraud in the same week, much less that same day. Maybe food fraud isnt so much of a secret any longer.
All three of these caveat emptor articles have a strong consumer focus and use strong words to describe those in the industry that cheat the customer.
Foodies Beware: The Rising Tide of Food Fraud by Danielle Dresden provides four solid examples of actual seafood fraud cases (species substitution, misrepresentation of country of origin, substituting farmed for wild) as well as pointing out examples of other highly-valued food products such as olive oil, coffee, cheeses that are frequently the victim of food fraud. The food fraudsters are called criminals and the article suggests that to stop a criminal one may need to think like a criminal to come up with ways to combat the fraud.
Food Fraud is Big Business Today! by Ruth Tan is mainly about the world of honey fraud. But substitute honey with fish in the article and it could be an article written by the BSB. Adulteration and misbranding by the honey fraudsters (referred to as food criminals in the article) arethechallengesfaced by honeysuppliers wanting to do the right thing.
Are FDA food labels accurate? by Art Young suggests that food crooks will only be stopped when the federal food regulators (i.e., FDA) step up to the plate to protect the consumer.
Criminals, Food Criminals, Food Crooks are strong words but how else should someone who violates the basic provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act for monetary gain be described?
Broken Windows Theory
We often mention the broken windows theory when we encourage FDA to focus some resources on economic fraud violations. The willingness to cheat or not understand the economic regulations (e.g., net weights, species identification) could be a sign of more serious problems like the willingness to be equally as lax or ignorant of food safety rules. While there are studies linking fixing broken windows to crime prevention, we havent seen such research in the seafood fraud arena.
Could this warning letter issued by FDA be an example of the broken window theory food safety-style? Dont know, but thank you FDA for taking note of how misidentifying a fish species is a violation of the FD & C Act.
Can Science Fairs Help?
Early in my career as a food scientist I would volunteer to be a judge at the local science fair. I was always amazed at the advanced level of science being achieved by the high school students. I dont recall though any projects where students investigated species substitution in the marketplace, but DNA testing of seafood seems to have captured the interest of young scientists. Now that interest has moved to the DC area.
The DC NBC news affiliate ran a story this week reporting on the results of a school project utilizing DNA analysis to identify fish species. Three high school students sampled various fish from DC wholesale fish markets and compared the results from the Smithsonians Barcode of Life DNA analysis to the labels on the fish. Out of the 49 samples, the students found that 11 were mislabeled. The students found Atlantic salmon being sold as King salmon, perch being sold as arctic char, Atlantic halibut being sold as Pacific halibut to name a few.
Unfortunately its become a sure thing that these types of investigations will find misidentified species. Fraud or not, consumers are misled. Maybe FDA should sub-contract with our high schools to help crack-down on species substitution.
A Different View of Food Fraud
Its funny what pops-up when you ask Google to search for blogs on food fraud. Today this posting from WebMD come across my email – Food Frauds That Can Wreck Your Diet. This has nothing to do with seafood fraud but there is a good slide (slide 15) about foods with added omega-3s. The folks at WebMD support obtaining healthful omega-3s naturally by eating fish. The food fix to avoid this particularfood fraud is to eat 6-ounces of salmon because it has 100 times more omega-3 than in a serving of fortified yogurt. Lets just hope that what we buy is at 100% net weight so we can get the most omega-3s for our money. Last time I checked ice glaze provides 0 mg of omega-3s.
Science to Combat Fraud
News out of Canada this week looks to science to detect food fraud. Nicholas Low a professor at the University of Saskatchewan is developing a molecular internal tagging system to track food products as they move through the supply chain.
There have been plenty of instances of food fraud, not just seafood, so there is certainly the need for innovative methods to authenticate ingredients and food products. We look forward to the final outcome from this project.
Now if someone could develop a technique for determining the % glazing without destroying the product. Is anyone up to the challenge?
Gotcha Carolina Style
Investigative reporting on species substitution in restaurants always makes for an interesting story. Reporter visits several area restaurants, orders a fish dish (typically grouper, snapper or some type of sashimi) from each restaurant, sends samples to a lab for DNA testing (almost always includes some type of action shot of the reporter putting teeny samples of fish in test tubes), and surprise!, some sample results come back indicating a fish switch passing off a less valued fish for the one on the menu. Gotcha. The story will then end with a 60-minutes-style interview of the restaurant owner and/or an outraged consumer. Finger pointing may happen, but you know what the consumer doesnt care whos at fault.