The beef, wine and seafood industries have proven particularly vulnerable to fraud. “This is because there is a big difference between the cheapest segment of the market and the high end of the market … certainly that is where you can make the most money.”
At worst, food fraud can lead to serious illness or even death. The 2008 Chinese milk scandal, in which milk and infant formula were mixed with chemical melamine to artificially increase protein content, resulted in the deaths of six babies who died from kidney damage. Some 54,000 children were hospitalized.
Food fraud can be recognized and classified into at least six different categories: mislabeling, dilution, substitution, adulteration, counterfeiting, and concealment.
Mislabeling, where a product is simply not what it says it is, is one of the most common types of product fraud, Ms. Lester says: “You think you’re buying snapper, you’re not.”
Cover-up occurs when scammers put an “organic” or “halal” label on something that is not and charge more. Meanwhile, dilution is known to occur with milk, juice, and especially wine.
Substitution is common in processed foods, such as ground beef. A 2019 study from Egypt found that 87 percent of ground “red” meat contained chicken or donkey meat. Adulterated products contain lower-quality ingredients, such as honey-flavored syrup in honey, to reduce costs.
Murky Origins: Where Does It All Go Wrong?
Somewhere along the way to get a product from the farm to the supermarket shelf, something goes wrong, Ms. Lester said. An unscrupulous farmer could be spraying “all kinds of things” on his crop, but labeling it organic. A slaughterhouse could cover buffalo or donkey meat as if it were meat.
It could easily happen on packaging, he added. “If you think of fruits and vegetables, they often come in really big boxes, and all the labeling is on the box or on the label. It’s not that hard to take a box and put something that has an organic label on it. “
Tony Battaglene, Executive Director of the Australian Wine and Grape Association, believes Australia does not have a major national wine fraud problem.
The same cannot be said for Australian exported wines. “The most common way we see [wine fraud] they are copycat products, ”he said. Bottles of “Benfolds” wines have been sold in mainland China for more than a decade. “If you don’t know what you are looking for, and if English is not your mother tongue, they can impersonate that.”
Battaglene said major Chinese online retailers have told him that 70 percent of the products sold on their website were copycats. China’s trade restrictions on wine have limited Australian producers’ access to the Chinese market and reduced visibility on the scale of the problem.
At the end of the day, almost everyone is worse off. “[Wine] producers are big losers because their brand can be destroyed… consumers are big losers because, in some cases, there are products that are not fit for consumption.
“The only winners are the thieves.”
What can we do about it
Tackling the slippery problem of product fraud would involve a number of factors. If consumer awareness of food fraud were to increase, companies would likely respond in kind, according to Ms Lester.
“I think there is a misconception that this is not a problem and people can trust what they are buying,” he said.
Another part of the problem is that some industries and companies are choosing to bury their heads in the sand. Technology also has an important role to play, but it comes with a significant financial investment. “You almost need someone who is willing to pioneer it.”
Regulation needs more teeth. At the moment, there are no really harsh penalties associated with product fraud, Ms. Lester says. “If you get caught, it becomes a media story and you get slapped on the wrist, but there’s really no way to regulate that.” This is more the case when the product is exported. “That requires a global response. It’s not something we can easily change. “
Ms. Lester encourages buying local produce. A shorter supply chain will mean less vulnerability to food handling or labeling. Processed foods always carry a naturally higher risk of substituted ingredients.
“A banana is a banana … but as soon as it is packaged and mixed with other things, there are opportunities for fraud.”
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