Richard Byrne

Food is rarely thought of as commodity susceptible to crime. We are often re-assured by branding and supermarkets that what we purchase is what is written on the label and it is derived from safe and regulated sources. Indeed until recently, criminality and food was thought to mostly relate to the theft of high value goods such as caviar and alcoholic drinks. However, recent high profile events in Europe relating to the substitution of horse meat for beef has exposed a whole raft of illegal activity linked to food.

We now realise that food crime encompasses everything from counterfeiting to mis-representation and product substitution.  Indeed it has been reported in the press that up to 10% of food purchased in the UK could be not quite as consumers think it is – and a recent cartoon in the NY Times similarly highlighted the adulteration of olive oil in the global market.  So what drives this activity? Quite simply a low risk of detection and high financial gain make it appealing. Additionally, the very nature of food which as a degradable and edible commodity makes food crime detection harder than say drug dealing and the law enforcement penalties are much lower. Given the transient nature of food it is often difficult to gauge the extent of the issue, although it is well established both India and China have had substantial problems with fake food.

Perhaps the most common food crime is substitution. Whereby a product is deliberately mis-labelled or mis-represented to usually gain a financial advantage or to circumnavigate trade restrictions.  In a major joint operation this month, EURPOL and INTERPOL seized more than 1000 tonnes of fake food across 33 countries, with products ranging from cereal, to spices, to honey.  One of the most common frauds relates to organic produce. The premium which organic attracts makes substitution attractive and the lack of easily discernible visual differences makes it a hard fraud to detect. Common substitutions involve core basic products such as eggs and vegetables and often seek to mask true providence or quality grade. Processed food and drink is not immune with fake branding and packaging affecting diverse products such as chocolate, balsamic vinegar and champagne. While this may seem an innocuous crime, these fake products are often produced in unsanitary conditions and can expose the consumer to a variety of health risks. Other substitutions are made not so much to fool the consumer as to defraud the port authorities.

While product substitution and mis-representation is clearly fraudulent it is not the only method by which the consumer is exposed to a variety of chemicals and biological risks. Adulteration is seen in a number of forms – but its principal aim is to make a product go further or look better than it naturally is. The 2008 adulteration of baby milk powder in China is probably the most infamous- in which melamine was added to formula feed to mislead protein analysis with devastating results. Other adulterations with potentially harmful outcomes have included watering down UHT milk with contaminated tap water and adding skimmed milk powder to mask its lack of protein and introducing ground peanuts to flour to boost its weight and nutritional value. Banned dyes have also been found to have been employed to enhance the visual appearance of various products especially spices.

Counterfeit foods and ingredients are often hard to spot.  Authorities rely on intelligence to identify the organised criminal gangs who trade in these goods but typically it is health related issues which first bring this crime to notice. The impacts of fake food go beyond the health issues though and can bring large-scale economic losses – not just to the retailers of the fake food but to brand holders and others in the sector who are tainted by the association. As the global recession continues to bite, the incentive to adulterate and substitute products to reduce cost is still there while the involvement of organised crime ensures widespread distribution and availability of both the products and precursors.

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