Wrong! While it’s pretty obvious that you could make an economic gain by bulking out an expensive food like caviar with something less expensive, it’s also possible to make economic gains by making tiny alterations to big-volume commodities. Even switching just one or two percent of a bulk item like beef mince or rice with something cheaper can create a huge economic gain when sales are counted in the thousands or tens of thousands of tonnes.
Ground meat is one commodity that has been frequently affected by this kind of food fraud. The adulterants are typically lower grade meat or offal from the same species or meat from a cheaper species. This kind of adulteration is difficult, if not impossible for consumers to detect.
Rice is another commodity that, despite being relatively cheap, is also affected by economically motivated adulteration. The adulterants are reported to be plastic pieces, including thermal insulation materials, potato starch mixed with polymer resins and even pieces of paper rolled to look like grains. This type of fraud relies on transient and poorly documented supply chains; the person who ultimately tries to eat the rice will detect the fraud in most cases – although there are reports of people suffering digestive problems after consumption – however the source of the adulteration usually proves impossible to trace.
If rice adulteration was occurring on a big scale in Europe I suspect that increasing the requirements for paperwork and trying to improve supply chain transparency would be the chosen strategy for those tackling the issue. In the Philippines they have taken a more direct and – for now at least – more feasible approach. They have developed a hand-held scanner that uses Raman spectroscopy to detect ‘fake’ rice by distinguishing between starch and styrene acrylonitrile copolymer. Fast, cheap, easy and no paperwork needed.