US beef sellers behaving badly and new information about lead in turmeric
In September 2019, four men from the United States beef industry were accused of food fraud by authorities. The men were owners and executives at two unrelated companies; one a beef wholesale company in New York, the other a Texan supplier to the US government.
Why would any person perpetrate food fraud? It is alleged that the New York men were struggling to make a profit in their business, even going so far as to successfully audition for a business makeoever reality TV show. They are alleged to have systematically removed United States Department of Agriculture-approved meat quality labels from cuts of beef and replaced them with counterfeit labels of a higher grade, enabling them to sell the beef at a higher price.
The men in Texas, who plead guilty for their role in a scheme to illegally add cow hearts to ground beef and who admitted to hiding the cow hearts from government inspectors, were almost certainly doing it for the money. The courts have heard that they sold the more than $1m worth of the adulterated meat to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
In both of these cases, the frauds resulted in customers receiving food that was not true to label, and those customers proceeded to unknowingly sell and serve it to un-suspecting consumers. In one case, the meat was mislabelled but not physically modified, in the other case, the meat itself was adulterated with unauthorised material. When food is adulterated or otherwise modified, processed or (re-)packed in a fraudulent manner, the result is a product that can present significant food safety risks to consumers.
Food fraud perpetrators generally wish to avoid causing serious or obvious food safety issues; after all, they do not want to be caught. As a result, not all food frauds result in food safety incidents. In a terrifying exception to this rule, however, it was alleged that a group of at least five people who adulterated black pepper in Vietnam in 2018 were aware that the adulterants were toxic. The weight of the pepper was fraudulently increased by the addition of home-dyed gravel and coffee bean skins. The dye was made by breaking open batteries to extract black-coloured manganese dioxide powder.
Another example of a toxic adulterant and one that has caused widespread illness and suffering is the industrial chemical melamine. Melamine, which contains nitrogen atoms, can be used to trick some protein test methods which calculate protein content of food based on nitrogen within the food. Melamine adulteration can therefore be used to boost the apparent protein content of foods such as milk powder, that are priced according to their protein content. Three hundred thousand babies became ill after drinking milk adulterated with melamine in China in 2008. Six babies died and tens of thousands of other infants, who are now teenagers, received irreversible kidney damage, condemning them to a life of renal dialysis and ongoing surgeries.
Melamine has also been used to fraudulently adulterate wheat products, meat products and animal feed. In the United States, melamine adulteration of dog and cat food caused the deaths of up to 3600 pets in 2007.
One of the scariest food safety issues to arise in connection with food fraud in recent years affects a food product favoured by some wealthy western consumers for its health-giving properties. Turmeric has been lauded as a wonder-food; with properties that are said to cure joint pain, reduce inflammation, improve mood, brain function and protect against heart disease. But powdered turmeric also presents real food safety risks to consumers because a significant proportion of powdered turmeric traded worldwide contains unsafe levels of lead. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that damages organs including the brain. Research released in September 2019 confirmed that the lead in turmeric is added to the spice in the form of toxic lead chromate which has a beautiful, intense yellow colour, the exact colour favoured by turmeric traders and buyers as an indicator of freshness and quality. Curry powder, cumin and cinnamon have also been affected. Another 2019 study, which surveyed more than 1496 samples of 50 spices from 41 countries found that 50% of the spice samples had detectable lead, and more than 30% had lead concentrations greater than 2 ppm, a level 200 times higher than the recommended maximum lead content of candy in the USA.
While not all food fraud represents a risk to food safety, fraudsters who adulterate food to make extra money for themselves put consumers lives at risk. Stay up to date with new food fraud incidents on our free, open-access food fraud database.