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Food fraud refers to the act of altering, mislabelling, misrepresenting, tampering or substituting any food product at any point from the farm to the table.Fraud can occur in an ingredient, a raw material in the packaging or even in the final product.
Food fraud is everywhere in the world, from horse meat in Europe to donkey meat in Africa, and more cases are being reported worldwide including Canada where awareness pertaining to this activity is high.Dalhousie University recently released a research on food fraud and the results were surprising.They found out that 63 percent of Canadians were generally concerned about food fraud. Worse of it is that more than 40 percent of Canadians felt that they have been a victim of the fraud already.This result was so alarming that it couldn't be ignored.
Canadian food fraud cases increases
Several categories of food were found to be more vulnerable to food fraud.These foodstuffs included seafood, fish, liquids, fruits, spices, vegetables and meat products.In recent months, Canada has seen its share of cases, and one of the most notable ones occurred in a farm in southwest Ontario near Lake Erie where a company was fined $1.5M for selling Mexican tomatoes as a product from Canada.The farm refuted the claims, saying that the labelling was just a computer error from their system.
Other cases of fraud have developed with whistle-blowers trying to draw all the attention to this new crime.Last year, one of the biggest poultry processors in the country, Cericola farms, was charged with fraud over an allegation of mislabelling some of their products as organic.In 2016 alone, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency received over 40 complaints, and the industry observers expect the number of cases to increase by the end of 2017.
Economic and health risks
Some people may believe that food fraud is a lesser crime compared to others committed in the country.But this is not the case; what is at stake here is the entire food economy.For any business to grow especially the food business, one requires consumer trust. Consumers nowadays will have a higher preference for high-quality products compared to the quantity. Why would a client pay for a product they may deem fraudulent?If the trust is lost, then everything that the industry is trying to accomplish may as well become more challenging than ever.
Although majority of the food companies are legit and ethically sound, you only need a few cases, and the reputation of the entire group will be damaged completely.The study by Dalhousie found out that consumers who are intolerant of certain foods or who have allergies will tend to avoid companies associated with food fraud because they will feel vulnerable. This food fraud is as much as a socioeconomic issue as it is a public health issue.
Technology as part of the partial solution
Recently, grocers have made investments in technology that offer a tool to identify products that are dangerous or counterfeits. Companies can't report fraudulent rival companies for fear of retaliation.In most cases, the company that denounces deceptive acts are probably the ones that are caught up in the scandals.So this leaves the control agency to spot the fake products, and their only option is to sample-test everything, which is obviously impossible and impractical.The regulators have been aware of the problem but have struggled to find a practical solution to address it.A few provinces in Canada have tried to set up committees on food integrity to work with companies on finding these fraudulent cases, but their work will take a little while before they get proper results.
In this case, the ball is in the consumer's court; they should visit restaurants and shop for food with extreme prejudice.The consumer should look for consistencies in the quality and pricing of the commodities.They should also ask some questions about strategies regarding procurement from retailers, and encourage restaurant operators to make the supply chain more transparent to everyone.
Unlike many decades ago when food fraud was still something new, today we have the necessary technology to detect fraudulent behavior.Researchers from around the world are now developing technologies that allow consumers to validate content on food labels. Imagine the day that you will be able to test products from your own house.Imagine testing if the olive oil is from Italy or if the apple is from Canada as labelled.
This technology exists, but sadly the costs are still prohibitive.One device can cost you as much as $200,000.Hopefully, one day consumers empowered with these technologies will bring a revolution and become the most powerful regulators and save the food industries.This will ensure that the entire food supply chain becomes disciplined.
In time, humans may not be able to get rid of food fraud but technology will.