Food fraud broadens perspective on food safety

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY – From mislabeled snapper to horse-tainted beef, food fraud lately has garnered widespread attention.

But the issue dates back centuries, said John Spink, director of the food fraud initiative at Michigan State University. Since ancient Roman times food and drink have been intentionally adulterated or counterfeited for economic gain.

Several factors explain the recent rise in food fraud awareness, including scholarly research, government regulation and improved technology that enables traceability and species testing.

A key component is “some kind of trigger event that was big enough, clear enough, impactful enough across borders and that really impacted customers,” Dr. Spink said. “Horse meat may be the trigger to step change.”

Like the 1980s case of poisoned painkillers that led to the creation of tamper-evident packaging, the European horse meat scandal may inspire a significant shift in how companies look at supply chains, Dr. Spink said.

“The horse meat incident has exposed the food supply chain, and that is where consumers, companies and countries feel very vulnerable,” he said. “There’s a feeling that if this could happen, how bad could it have been if there was a public health threat?”

However, most food fraud incidents go undetected because they typically lack a safety risk.

“If the horse meat did have E. coli or arsenic in it, our public health systems and food defense systems are set up to look for that kind of contaminant or harm,” Dr. Spink said. “So, one of the reasons that the horse meat-type situation can occur long term and on a large scale is that we’re not specifically looking for it and it’s not creating a public health threat.”

While the horse meat scandal hasn’t been linked to a health risk, it has infected the reputations of Nestle S.A., the Taco Bell brand, Burger King Worldwide, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Aldi, all of which unknowingly sold or served beef product containing horse DNA in Europe.

“Even though those companies may have sound business practices and food safety management systems, they could still be impacted by something like that,” Dr. Spink said.

So, what’s a food maker or distributor to do when brand equity is on the line?

“Companies should be aware of current incidents in the marketplace and start to look for these fraud opportunities,” Dr. Spink said. “Many times, the detection step can be very clear, such as testing for melamine. Then, they will virtually eliminate the possibility of melamine even being shipped to them, let alone finding melamine in their system, because the bad guys are going to know they are testing for melamine.”

Reviewing food fraud databases, such as the US Pharmacopeial Convention’s repository of recorded incidents, may help companies identify other potential risks for fraud.

“We get an idea of what fraud events are out there because they’re either reported or studied, but they are not a clear representation of all food fraud incidents because there may be some incidents that we may not even know exist,” Dr. Spink said. “What’s key to those databases is that we do see characteristics of products that have led to fraud at high level.”

For example, bulk products and fluid or ground products may be diluted with filler, he said.

Another commonly misrepresented product is seafood, as recently exposed in a study by international advocacy group Oceana. The report, released in February, found a third of fish were labeled incorrectly, in some cases creating health consequences.

“With seafood fraud, when there’s a raw filet, I bet you couldn’t find too many people in our Michigan State Univ. Fisheries and Wildlife Department who could do species identification of a filet of fish by look,” Dr. Spink said. “What we’re seeing there is the same type of situation as the horse meat scandal — that as there’s awareness that there could be a problem, people are starting to look. As the awareness goes up a bit, then the fish manufacturers and the retailers and the agencies will start to ask for better testing and better record of where they got their product.”

With heightened attention to food fraud and its consequences, the industry is better poised to aggressively address the issue from a prevention standpoint, according to Dr. Spink.

“As companies are starting to learn about these vulnerabilities, they are slowly expanding the perspective of food safety or food defense systems to include this and are taking logical, progressive steps to look at the problem, to try to detect it and then try to deter it,” he said. “I’m starting to see that now — companies that have been very concerned for a while are now like, ‘We’ve got to do something. It’s time.’”

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