Food fraud is big business. Criminal organizations around the world earn millions of dollars annually by cutting high-quality food products with cheaper substitutes to increase profits. The practice is so ubiquitous throughout the food industry that food protection agencies refer to it as economically motivated adulteration (EMA) The consequences of this practice can include reputational damage to respected food brands, public health crises resulting from adulteration using hazardous elements designed to avoid standard integrity testing, and financial damage to legitimate producers who can’t compete with cheaper adulterated products.
According to a recent news story, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has been conducting targeted surveillance on international producers of adulterated honey entering the Canadian market since 2018. By analyzing 240 samples of imported honey, CFIA determined that one-fifth of the samples advertised as pure honey are adulterated with corn syrup, rice syrup, and cane sugar syrup. As a result of the inspection, CFIA has stopped 12,800 kilograms of honey valued at $77,000 from entering Canadian supermarkets.
Honey has a particularly complex supply chain, which means that it is vulnerable to adulteration at several points. International honey travels from producers to processors, and then to numerous importers, brokers, and distributors around the world. Each one of these links in the supply chain represents a point at which criminal opportunists can intercept the product and blend it with the cheaper products.
Detecting food fraud presents significant challenges. Laboratory testing of food products can’t cover every food item coming into the country. Further, since criminal enterprises want to maintain the fraud and profit from it for as long as possible, they’ve developed ways of avoiding detection by standard testing by using adulterants that are similar enough to the adulterated product to trick the tests. For example, in the Chinese powdered milk scandal in 2008, producers used melamine to adulterate milk, since they knew that the protein in the melamine would make it appear as though the integrity of the milk had not been compromised. The Chinese milk fraud was exposed when six children died and many thousands more were hospitalized. The honey fraud has likely been going on for some time, since the adulterants taste more-or-less like honey and have not caused any illnesses that would raise the alarm. Methods for detecting food fraud include psychological profiling of likely criminal agents in the food chain, rigorous management systems for tracking roles, responsibilities, and processes, and the promotion of local food consumption to reduce the complexity and length of international food supply chains.
To learn more, read Is Your Food at Risk? Protecting Against Crime and Fraud in the Food Supply Chain by Nicole Radziwill and Graham Freeman.