As an academic and a chef, there seems to always be a nagging question in the back of my mind when I go out to eat at a restaurant, “Is the food I am about to eat going to harm me?” The food industry sets strict standards for food safety and purchasing practices to protect consumers from food illnesses associated with food fraud — when an ingredient is replaced partially or fully with something different without the knowledge of the consumer — but studies and research shows that food adulteration is a scary and very real concern. What is the risk? And what can professional foodservice managers do to prevent fraudulent food from finding its way onto their menus? Read on.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAKE FOOD
When most consumers think of foodborne illnesses, they think of unsafe food handling. (Listeria in cantaloupe or salmonella in peanut butter are recent examples of U.S. outbreaks.) Food fraud also contributes to this category of sicknesses. Foodborne illnesses can cost lives, but they also cost the country money. According to Dan Flynn of Food Safety News, the USDA states, “The economic cost of foodborne illness is over 15 billion dollars a year.” This has the “potential costs, taking into account such factors as associated outpatient and inpatient expenditures for medical care and lost income.”
Intrinsic challenges within the food supply chain and modification of key ingredients are both main contributors to why consumers and restauranteurs are getting duped by fake food. For example, a restauranteur may never see the whole fish he or she orders from a purveyor if it was processed and packaged at sea. Fillets of one fish could easily pass for another.
In his article on the prevalence of food modification, Dr. Evangelia Komitopoulou, a Global Technical Manager at SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance) in the UK, cites a recent report published in the Journal of Food Science that names the top five ingredient categories most commonly associated with fraud:
- Oils (mainly olive oil): 24% of reported food adulteration cases
- Milk: 14%
- Fruit juices (including concentrates, jams, purees and preserves): 12%
- Spices: 11%
- Sweeteners: 8%
Other food product categories affected included natural flavoring complexes, dairy products and milk derivatives, cereals, grains and pulses (each at 4%) while gums, functional food ingredients, flavor chemicals, seafood and wines, spirits and vinegars came at the bottom of the list (each at 2%).
It doesn’t end there. A staggering study by Oceana that looked at U.S. retail seafood found that 33% of the seafood samples collected from 674 retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled. Another report found that in India, 64.8% of milk-based and cereal-based sweets and savory products tested were adulterated.
WHY FOOD FRAUD OCCURS
In a 2013 interview, Monica Dybuncio of CBS News asked Dr. John Spink, study author and assistant director of the anti-counterfeiting and product protection program at Michigan State University, why food fraud occurs. He answered that it’s mostly “technical and economical, however, there are some cases where there can be serious health consequences.” Some of these consequences could be related to the rise of allergies or intolerances.
WHAT RESTAURATEURS CAN DO
How can the restaurant business be more mindful of food adulteration?
- Create food specifications from reputable food service distributors.
- Check with those food distributors about the most common food frauds examples.
- Ask to see their manufacturers’ and or brokers’ documents on the most common culprits.
It does take a lot of work and due diligence, but food safety and, ultimately, consumer safety are at risk. That said, it all comes down to the bottom line: In a recent article, researchers cautioned that food adulteration is “a consequence of the economic crisis, both consumers and businesses are focusing predominantly on price.”
THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION
As food adulteration is a global issue and conern, it begs the question: Is it necessary to broaden the food fraud designation to include the global fraud production practices to protect the consumer? Dr. Komitopoulou states “compliance with local, national, and international regulations and the implementation of best practices, as well as quality, safety, and sustainability management systems underpins their success. Internationally recognised standards (e.g. ISO, IFS) are regularly updated to reflect the reality of today’s business environment and its challenges.”
Unfortunately, in the meantime, the food fraud industry, perhaps like other fraudulent practices, continues to evolve faster than governments can write laws against it. Food adulteration is not just another regional problem; it is a global problem, one that has direct consequences to the foodservice industry in general. As culinary practitioners and academics, more attention needs to be placed on this issue and how to prevent possible health problems because of unsafe purchasing practices in the foodservice industry.