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Underestimating Food Fraud

In the rest of the world, fraud is considered a white-collar crime. The victim’s bank account might take a hit, but there’s never any physical harm or violence done to the person.

In food fraud, the goal is the same — economic gain — but there is a very real danger than someone could be injured or killed as a result of the action. A new report by the Institute of Food Technologists warns that fraud is a threat just as real as food safety and food security, but it’s not getting the same amount of attention.

“It’s not that people aren’t looking for it, it’s that it really hasn’t been explained as a public health threat,” said John Spink, an assistant professor and associate director of the Anti-Counterfeit and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University. “It’s always perceived as an economic threat.”

I spoke with Spink, who was one of the authors behind the IFT report, in part because just the week before, Consumer Reports magazine had found that more than one-fifth of 190 pieces of seafood it had bought at retail stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled or misidentified by in-store associates.

The story didn’t delve into whether the actions were intentional or not but other reports have shown that to be the case.

Commodities like seafood, meat and produce seem like obvious marks for fraud, but the entire health and wellness segment is ripe for victimization, too. Some terms, such as organic, are tightly regulated, but others — natural, artisan and local, to name a few — are open to interpretation, and abuse.

And abused they have been. This blog has numerous stories about issues surrounding terminology and regulations. If fraud is an economically motivated crime, then you can’t do much better in whole health, which is blessed with high premiums and big demand.

The frightening thing about food fraud in this area is that many consumers are buying natural, organic or special needs products out of necessity. They have food allergies or diseases that require specific foods. Anything that’s mislabeled or adulterated or misrepresented could be deadly.

“Even when there’s only an economic threat, there’s still a vulnerability because the bad guys aren’t paying attention to Good Manufacturing Practices, or aren’t aware of how their actions impact humans,” said Spink.

All consumers are at risk, however. Salvaging a piece of dropped fruit that is bruised and is subsequently contaminated with E. coli, or adding melamine to milk to boost protein content readings are examples cited in the study.

Food fraud is a threat retailers can’t afford. Spink said in almost every case, supermarkets are victims along with their shoppers. Private label is potentially one area of concern.

“At the end of the day, if it has your name on it, you are going to be the one who gets the phone call,” he told me. “Even with the best systems, anyone can be duped.”