Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Food Fraud

Food fraud is nothing new - it was mentioned in the UK in 1771 by Thomas Smollet and food adulteration was common in the Victorian era.

Food fraud usually takes the form of passing off inferior materials as more expensive products.  It can be as simple as adding chalk to flour, supplementation of milk powder with melamine or passing off a low value product as one of greater worth.  The latter often involves violation of trade marks or brand names.

Why do unscrupulous suppliers do this?  Simply put, it's greed.  If you can sell low value materials as high quality products, you can make a killing.  Sometimes this occurs literally, for example, the not uncommon adulteration of spirits with methanol, an industrial chemical, or the attempt to smooth wine by adding glycol.

When I first began teaching in a Bachelor of Food Technology degree, I was horrified to read a full-page advertisement in a glossy trade magazine:  "Why sell meat when you can sell water?"  The advertiser was selling sodium tripolyphosphate, a water binding agent that can be injected into meats including fish.  It makes the meat appear more succulent and acts as a preservative, but also increases the sale weight.

So this practice continues.  The most recent description comes from foodprocessing.com.au 

It appears that the authorities in China have been investigating many cases of food fraud and over 900 people have been arrested.  One example is the manufacture of fake mutton from fox, mink and rat by the addition of chemicals. The amounts involved are truly staggering (where do they find so many foxes?).  Presumably, the meat is comminuted, as cuts of rat are unlikely to be similar to mutton, though it might be a different matter with fox meat.  It would be particularly disturbing if the products were labelled "Product of New Zealand" - this is a prime example of "passing off".  It would not be the first time this sort of thing has happened.

Food fraud in any form is stealing.  The consumer is not getting what he or she is paying for.  The Chinese authorities are right to come down hard on the perpetrators, but it's an extremely difficult thing to stamp out because of the enormous rewards of getting away with it.

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