Keeping abreast of food fraud and food safety news is a daily activity and one of my favourite work tasks. This week, as I skimmed through food industry trivia and pondered the launch of chocolate cheese (seriously), the two most alarming and unusual food fraud incidents I came across were news of thirty five businesses who were caught by Chinese authorities adding opium to food and a British business that was prosecuted for selling ‘almond’ powder that contained peanut. By the way, you did see that correctly: opium. And just for the record, opium is not a permitted food additive. Peanut-contamination of anything is, of course, a very serious risk to the safety of allergic consumers and has resulted in deaths in recent years. It’s tragic to see that this type of adulteration continues to occur.
Having digested thousands of words of information about prosecutions, investigations, trends in food fashions and the changing regulatory landscape, I began to notice some patterns and found a couple of big red flags for future risks of food fraud.
Halal certifications are increasingly needed for market access for almost every food type at both the retail and wholesale level. A halal product is often indistinguishable from its non-halal counterpart which means that everyday consumers are not able to verify food sellers’ claims about halal status. Falsely claiming halal for a food item is an easy fraud to perpetrate, especially during the retail sale of un-packaged food in restaurants and takeaway stores. Halal fraud can be as sophisticated as forgery of certification documents accompanying bulk shipments of food or as simple as dishonest signage in a takeaway store. There have been a number of incidences of halal fraud in the news lately and these are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg. I see very high risks in the South East Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia; these being some of the world’s biggest markets for halal food and having variable and sometimes chaotic food supply chains accompanied by uneven regulatory enforcement. However, halal forgery can happen even in the most sophisticated markets with a recent prosecution in the United Kingdom in which the fraudster is alleged to have netted a quarter of a million pounds. With this kind of money up for grabs, you can expect halal fraud to continue.
Probiotics are among the hottest food ingredients for the healthy eating market right now. New technology is claimed to enable probiotic bacteria – good bacteria – to survive in an ever-increasing range of food types, taking them beyond traditional yoghurts and ‘Yukult’ style dairy drinks. Probiotic foods command a premium price and, as with many of the most vulnerable food fraud targets, the probiotic components are indiscernible to consumers. There is a real and growing risk that fraudulent claims will be made about the quantity and types of live bacteria in food products, with the possibility of both accidental and deliberate frauds. Any food business can make a mistake with formulations and shelf life, leading to discrepancies between the quantity of live bacteria in the food and what is claimed on the pack. Premium brand owners are less likely to risk their reputation with unsubstantiated claims and these businesses are more likely to have the in-house expertise and resources to properly verify their on-pack claims. It’s the smaller food companies and newer brands that I worry about: they are much more likely to find themselves inadvertently or knowingly selling ‘probiotic’ products that don’t live up to the marketing hype.
Cold Brew Coffee
Can you fake cold brew coffee? Cold brewed coffee appears to be here to stay but it has a high price tag and would be easy to fake. Could the average consumer taste the difference between conventional and cold-brew coffee? I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t, especially when served icy cold or with lots of milk. The production method for cold brewed coffee is slower than conventional brewing, which usually means more costly. And that means food businesses could be tempted to cut a few corners. Even hipster brands that build their messages around product authenticity can find themselves in a scandal when financial pressures increase, as was the case with an ultra-premium bean-to-bar chocolate brand recently. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few incidences of fraudulent claims about cold-brewed coffee hitting the headlines this year.