My wife and I are concerned about the food we buy for ourselves and our kids. We are also concerned about mislabelling on food packages and other forms of food fraud.
A recent study found that most Canadians have similar worries. Dalhousie University researchers found that 63 per cent of 1,088 respondents in a survey agreed or strongly agreed when asked if they are concerned that products in Canada are being misrepresented. But 74 per cent of respondents showed significant concern that food from overseas sources might not meet expectations.
We are right to have these fears. We are seeing more and more cases of food fraud. The Grocery Manufacturers Association in the United States says that fraud touches 10 per cent of all commercially sold food products globally. That’s an awful lot of food.
There are two common forms of food fraud. One is mislabelling: Calling a product ‘organic’ when it is not, changing the country of origin or changing the expiration date. But the second form, product substitution, is more serious and involves switching a product for a counterfeit. This might include adding illegal or other ingredients to make the product look like it’s the real deal. Not only is this a form of theft, but it can be dangerous to those with allergies and even have deadly effects.
In Canada, food fraud has included mislabelling fish or diluting products such as maple syrup, honey and olive oil. Once it’s skinned, it’s hard to tell one frozen fish from another. A U.S. survey found that 49 per cent of fish were mislabelled. A University of Guelph study found that 25 to 40 per cent of fish are mislabelled. For instance, catfish has been sold as cod and farmed Atlantic salmon has been sold as wild Pacific salmon. In some food fraud cases in the United States, water was added to increase the weight before freezing the fish.
Food fraud is increasing because it’s easy to commit and get away with it. Just last month, a University of Guelph study found that of 100 sausages tested from Canadian grocery stores, about one in five included ingredients not found on the label. For instance, of 27 beef sausages, seven had pork in them. Of 38 pork sausages, one contained horse meat. The processor is ultimately responsible and they get into illegal territory when more than 1 per cent of the produce is mislabelled. Undeclared ingredients were recorded in the one to five per cent range in many of the samples.
China has had a disgraceful history of food fraud. Many people still remember the 2008 Chinese milk scandal in which 300,000 people fell ill when melamine, a chemical used to produce plastic, was added to milk powder to meet a protein test. Six babies died. Of more than 2,000 inspections, 48 per cent of Chinese food factories in 2014 failed to meet quality control tests. In foods tested, researchers found abnormal pesticide levels, heavy metals, deliberate package mislabelling, and illness-causing bacteria or viruses. Hundreds of different Chinese products (including non-food items) have been stopped at the U.S. border for not meeting legal requirements. And that was just in one year.
Among imported products, Canada has received fake ginseng and counterfeit basmati rice. Other food fraud cases worldwide include wood pulp alledgedly found in Parmesan cheese, sugar from Sudan laced with fertilizer and baby formula mixed with cement or chalk dust.
In 2014, the Conference Board in Canada said that food in Canada was safest among 17 developed nations. So, how safe is it? We know that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests about 3,000 foods a year. That’s a drop in the bucket if you consider Canadians eat 108 million meals in just one day (or 39 trillion meals in one year).
In an interview with Farmers Forum, Canadian Food Inspection Agency deputy-chief of food safety officer Dr. Aline Dimitri called food fraud an “emerging issue” but did not reassure me that an emerging response is under way. She declined to say how many labs in Canada test for food fraud and how many people the agency has hired to deal with it. She could not say from what country we are finding the most fraudsters and in what foods we find the most offences.
Part of the problem is that retailers often have no idea that the food was tampered with by the time they get the product.
I am not surprised that surveys show that consumers prefer local food to organic or imported food. There is comfort in the accountability that comes from being close to the supplier. But for everything else, ask your grocer if anyone tests their products. Costco, for instance, hires SGS Canada to test products such as olive oil to be sure the product is not laced with green dye.
Until you know who your food providers are, you don’t know enough about the food you are eating.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org