How Does Food Fraud Put Public Health at Risk?

This article was first published at Alchemy Systems on August, 2 2016 (Photo credit: Alchemy Systems)

Saffron, pomegranate juice, extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, honey—we all have heard how expensive or “luxury” food items can be adulterated to generate extra profit for suppliers and manufacturers. Consumers pay top price for a food product that, in reality, is lower quality. This is called food fraud, or “economically motivated adulteration” (EMA), and it has been happening for centuries ever since food items were first traded in village markets.

Food fraud tends to go largely unnoticed because fraudulent production methods are designed specifically to go undetected, and usually the adulterants aren’t harmful.  The key word is “usually,” because food fraud can lead (and has) to public health crises. Sometimes fraudsters are not knowledgeable about the substances they use to adulterate food.

  • industrial dyes
  • plasticizers
  • allergens
  • other substances not intended for human consumption

Food adulteration is an ongoing, global issue

We are not wholly protected from food fraud in the U.S.

In 2009, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives were indicted for fraud when an outbreak of Salmonella resulted in 9 deaths and 700 people hospitalized. Although food contamination with pathogens such as Salmonella usually does not fall into the category of food fraud, investigations found that PCA executives knew about the contamination for months, falsified laboratory results, and willingly continued to ship the product to avoid profit losses.

Last year, a large-scale recall was announced due to adulteration of ground cumin with peanut protein, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a warning to consumers not to use this common spice if they have an allergy to peanuts.Consensus among many experts in the field is that this adulteration incident was most likely a case of food fraud.

What about preventing food fraud?

Fortunately, for every effort by fraudsters to circumvent the integrity of the food supply, there is an equally large effort to prevent food fraud and its potential harm to public health. In recent years, new food safety authorities and laws have been established and become official in many countries, including India and China. In the U.S., Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations require food companies to include an assessment of economically motivated hazards in their food safety plans, to help prevent harm to the public as a result of food fraud.

In an effort to prevent food fraud, the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has created new tools to help food companies reduce food fraud vulnerabilities in their supply chains. Companies may access the Food Fraud Database, which is the largest collection of records of food fraud in the world. The database assists the food industry in meeting the new FSMA requirements, risk and vulnerability assessments, and supplier verification. The Food Fraud Database 2.0 works in conjunction with USP’s Food Fraud Mitigation Guidance to help the food industry evaluate their ingredient portfolios for food fraud vulnerability and take measures to prevent it.

Karen Everstine, Ph.D., MPH is a Scientific Liaison, Food Standards at USP. Follow her on Twitter at @crediblechow

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