Opinion: It's Time to Stop Underestimating the Scope of Food Fraud - Modern Farmer

Opinion: It’s Time to Stop Underestimating the Scope of Food Fraud

Food fraud affects many more products than consumers know, and not just in high-cost foods such as honey and whiskey. 

Illustration: Rose Garrett / Modern Farmer

Food fraud has been happening since humans first began to buy and sell food, thousands of years ago. Early Romans faked premium wines and added lead salts to sweeten their drinks, while medieval bakers added chalk and dust to their loaves because it was cheaper than flour.

Modern food systems are built on regulations born of the need to prevent deceptive practices like these. But modern food systems are still riddled with fraud. And yet, food fraud stories in the mainstream media consistently underestimate the breadth and scope of fraud in modern food supply chains. 

Most food fraud stories focus on premium foods such as maple syrup, wasabi, vanilla, caviar and truffles. But while these foods are at risk from food fraud, they make up only a tiny percentage of the foods we eat each day. 

Food fraud affects much more than high-cost foods such as honey and whiskey. It occurs in all parts of the food chain, including commodities such as grains and oils, animal feeds, fruit and bulk ingredients.  

What is food fraud?

When people use deceptive tactics to make extra profits from food, the result is food fraud. The deception can be perpetrated on an enormous scale, affecting hundreds of shipments of material across multiple years. Or it can be opportunistic, such as forging an organic declaration for a single delivery of oilseeds.

Food fraud can net millions of dollars for the perpetrator and costs the global food industry $40 billion per year

Food fraud in bulk

When fraud occurs in raw materials or inputs to the supply chain, huge quantities of food are affected, such as a massive fraud that occurred in organic grains used for animal feed. 

In 2019, a Missouri man was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison after being caught selling more than 10 million bushels of “fake” organic grain worth millions of dollars over a period of seven years. The man told customers he had grown the grain on his certified organic fields when it was non-organic grain that had been grown elsewhere. At other times, he sold grain from “organic” fields that had been sprayed with unauthorized chemicals and mixed non-organic grain into shipments of organic grain to increase profits. 

Most of the affected grain was purchased for animal feed for raising organic meat. Because the grain was not organic, the resulting meat was also not genuinely organic. In this way, the fraud was propagated along the supply chain, from grain trader to animal feed supplier to rancher to slaughterhouse to meat supplier and finally to millions of unsuspecting consumers. 

Cheaper bulk food ingredients are also affected by fraud. Thousands of tons of dried milk powder was adulterated in a massive fraud that led to illnesses in more than 300,000 infants who drank formula made from the milk powder. The fraud had been going on for years, undetected by authorities. 

The milk powder was adulterated with melamine, a poisonous chemical with a high nitrogen content, a whiteish color and a neutral taste. When added to milk powder or wheat gluten, it boosts the apparent protein content of the food in laboratory tests, thereby increasing the amount of money a seller can earn per pound. 

The same thing happened to ingredients used for pet foods. Wheat gluten was adulterated with melamine in 2006 and 2007, with at least 800 tons affected across dozens of shipments. The gluten was used as an ingredient by multiple pet food manufacturers in many brands of dog and cat food, killing an estimated 4,500 pets across the US. 

Different foods, different frauds

Food fraud affects every type of agricultural commodity, including fresh produce, edible oils and tree nuts. Fresh fruit might not seem like a lucrative target for food fraud, but it is vulnerable to counterfeiting, with exporters of some brands of fruit having to compete with unauthorized copies of their own products in importing countries. 

To combat this, Tasmanian cherry growers employ a range of overt and covert anti-counterfeit systems, including intricate, laser-cut carton stickers, custom-printed carton liners, watermarked carton bases and QR codes; while New Zealand kiwifruit growers have experimented with invisible “watermarks” that can be printed onto fruit skins with special food-grade chemicals.

Expensive oils and cheap oils are equally likely to be fraud-affected. Expensive oils such as hazelnut and coconut oil can be diluted with cheaper oils to increase profits for the seller. A recent survey of avocado oils found almost 60 percent did not meet purity criteria, with tests revealing they had been adulterated with sunflower and other oils. 

Cheap bulk oils such as palm oil can be fraud affected, too. Palm oils are considered to be environmentally unfriendly because their production can cause deforestation, so there is plenty of motivation for fraud perpetrators to make false claims about where and how they were grown or sourced. Soy and canola oils can be falsely claimed to be organic or non-GMO if they were made from GMO crops. This can even happen without the knowledge of the oil mill, which might have been deceived about the GMO status of incoming oilseeds. 

Tree nuts are popular targets for theft, because they keep for a long time and are difficult to trace when sold in bulk by thieves. A single trailer load of pistachios can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, netting any thief a tidy profit when he sells them on to legitimate food traders. Food and beverage thefts are now the top cargo crime in the US, with strategic, organized thefts of food shipments increasing by 600 percent between 2022 and 2023. 

Food fraud is pervasive across all parts of the supply chain, from basic agricultural commodities to bulk ingredients used for manufactured foods and through to finished grocery items in every category. 

The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association estimates that at least 10 percent of all retail food has been affected by food fraud in some way by the time it gets into your shopping cart. The real proportion is probably even higher than 10 percent. 

We must stop thinking of food fraud as something that only affects high-priced luxury foods. It takes many forms and can appear in even the cheapest food ingredients and finished products.

What must be done?

Food fraud can only be tackled by the combined efforts of all parts of the food industry. Regulations and rules prohibit food traders and suppliers from selling fraud-affected foods, but laws are ineffective on their own. Enforcement against food fraud is low on food agencies’ priorities, which rightly focus on more pressing issues such as protecting consumers from foodborne illnesses. 

In 2023, the food industry still underestimates how prevalent food fraud is and how many different food types are affected. Purchasers of ingredients and commodities such as grains and oils still rely solely on certificates that can be forged, laboratory tests or that can be faked and letters of guarantee that are not worth the paper on which they are printed. 

All actors in the food supply chain, from growers and packing houses to oil mills, animal feed suppliers, food manufacturers, restaurants and retailers, must do a better job of holding their suppliers to account. That means doing more to check the authenticity of the food, commodities and ingredients they use, instead of relying on the word of the supplier. 

Consumers are, for the most part, at the mercy of the food industry, with no way of telling whether any item in their grocery cart is affected by fraud or not. That is why people in the food supply chain must become a little less trusting of their suppliers and a little more careful about checking for food fraud in the materials they purchase. With a little more effort and a little less blind faith, the industry can together keep everyone safe from food fraud.

Karen Constable is an international food fraud prevention expert, owner of Food Fraud Advisors consultancy and founder of 🍏The Rotten Apple🍏, a weekly update on food fraud, food safety and sustainable supply chains for busy professionals.

This story is part of ‘Phonies, Fakes and Food Fraud’, a special Modern Farmer series. See the full series here.

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Wes Payne
7 months ago

The article does a good job of highlighting the pervasiveness of food fraud across all parts of the food supply chain. It also provides some specific examples of food fraud, such as the case of the Missouri man who sold millions of bushels of fake organic grain.

Can you provide more information about the risks of food fraud, such as health risks, economic loss, and lost trust in the food system?

7 months ago

Are there any brands that can be trusted more than others in order to make more informed choices when shopping?