A shocking number of foods you buy may not be what the label says they are. The current issue of food fraud in Canada is outlined in a new report published by the Arrell Food Institute of the University of Guelph.
Food fraud is the deliberate alteration, dilution, tampering, addition, substitution, mislabelling or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging for financial benefit.
It costs the global food industry an estimated $10-$15 billion annually, affecting about 10 per cent of all commercially sold food products, according to the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association. The most commonly adulterated foods include seafood, meat, honey, grains and oilseeds, alcoholic beverages, and produce.
Oceana Canada has published the most comprehensive national investigation into seafood fraud to date. Their 2018 study using DNA testing found that 44 per cent of 382 seafood samples from 177 stores and restaurants across Canada were mislabeled. Mainly, high value species were substituted with low value species and falsely labeled. For example, fish labeled as cod is often actually haddock or Alaska Pollock.
How can such a thing happen? The global food supply chain is complex and ambiguous, food can travel all over the place before it’s consumed.
Food fraud poses serious health risks. Hazardous ingredients or unidentified allergens can be added to foods without the consumers’ knowledge. Escolar, a fish that has been banned in various countries due to its health risks, is often mislabeled as white tuna or butterfish. The oily fish can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
Although this problem may appear as isolated incidents here and there, serious food fraud in Canada can have widespread effects. It can hurt “Brand Canada” and adversely affect the reputation of Canadian businesses, as well as their economic endeavours. Knowledge of food fraud can seriously damage company reputations and regional food supply chains.
The issue isn’t new, but the pandemic has only made it worse. The COVID-19 pandemic’s major disruption of global food supply chains has led to a surge in food fraud, say food authenticity experts in the report.
As people become more aware of it, more and more worries surrounding the authenticity of food products and food labels arise. According to the report, 59 per cent of Canadians are concerned about the safety of imported foods and 55 per cent are concerned about the safety of all foods, whether local, domestic, or imported.
Consumers rely on producers to give them what they pay for, and honest suppliers and vendors believe they’re providing the correct product. The practice of food fraud is deception on multiple levels of the food supply chain and is difficult to pinpoint without full-chain traceability.
The Arrell Food Institute calls it a poorly understood problem with inadequate documentation. “In Canada specifically, the statistics and reliable information are lacking,” states the report.
Since there are many different ways of falsifying food products, there are a variety of food fraud detection methods. They are either physical, immunological, molecular, chemical or biochemical techniques. Some include: microscopy, spectroscopy, isotope analysis, and chromatography.
While other nations are targeting food fraud and seizing substandard foods, such as through membership in the Europol-Interpol Food Fraud Task Force or Opson, Canada does not have a food crimes unit at all. Most measures against food fraud are conducted by industry programs, such as Costco and Loblaws requiring suppliers to adhere to standardized food safety programs and go through annual audits.
“Within Canada, there is a need to not only have a better and more appropriate, integrated response to food fraud, but also a clearer focus on deterring food fraud in the first place,” the report says.
The 39-page Food Fraud in Canada document can be downloaded on the Arrell Food Institute website: https://arrellfoodinstitute.ca/spotlight/food-fraud-in-canada/