In the broad range of serious food issues – from dangerous pathogens to chemical residues to bioterrorism – food fraud, or economically-motivated adulteration, often takes a backseat. But should it? Research shows that while adulteration is often motivated by making an extra buck, there are also serious public health risks.

“Food Fraud is a much broader set of crimes than just counterfeiting or adulteration,” says John Spink, the associate director of Michigan State University’s Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program. “The term Economically Motivated Adulteration has been used by [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration], and although there has been a lot of activity using this term in the food industry, it actually involves all FDA regulated products.”

Spink and Douglas Moyer, both faculty at Michigan State University, published a paper in the Journal of Food Science in November specifically aimed at defining the public health risks of food fraud, hoping to provide a base reference for the issue and help shift the current focus on intervention to one of prevention.

“The food-related public health risks are often more risky than traditional food safety threats because the contaminants are unconventional,” write Spink and Moyer. “Current intervention systems are not designed to look for a near infinite number of potential contaminants.”

As it stands now, food fraud crackdowns often focus on the economic impact of cheating the system, not public health, and are reactive, not preventative.

foodfraudinterpol.jpgIn late November, European Union’s Europol teamed up with Interpol to conduct a week-long, multi-country food fraud operation. Agents seized hundreds of tons of fake and substandard food and drink–including champagne, cheese, olive, oil, and tea–from Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Known as “Operation Opson,” the effort, which took six-months to plan, ultimately turned up a lot of fraudulent food.

The team seized 13,000 bottles of substandard olive oil, 30 tons of fake tomato sauce, around 77,000 kg of counterfeit cheese, more than 12,000 bottles of substandard wine worth 300,000 EUR (or nearly $400,000), five tons of substandard fish and seafood, and nearly 30,000 counterfeit candy bars. Authorities also said the sale of fake or substandard caviar on the internet was under investigation.

Interestingly, when Interpol-Europol announced the results, they specifically cited public health as a key reason to crack down on fraudulent food practices.

“Consumers buying these goods, either knowingly or unknowingly, are putting their health at risk as the counterfeit food and drink are not subject to any manufacturing quality controls and are transported or stored without proper regard to hygiene standards,” authorities said about the operation.

Interpol-Europo said Operation Opson, which means “food” in ancient Greek, had three critical goals:

– Raise awareness of the dangers posed by counterfeit and substandard foods;

– Establish partnerships with the private sector to provide a cohesive response to this type of crime;

– Protect consumers by seizing and destroying substandard foods and identifying the criminals behind these networks.

“One of the main goals of this operation was to protect the public from potentially dangerous fake and substandard food and drinks, which is a threat that most people are not even aware of,” said Simone Di Meo, Criminal Intelligence Officer with Interpol’s Intellectual Property Rights programme and coordinator for Operation Opson.

Explicitly linking fraudulent or substandard food to public health risk is something Spink and his team at Michigan State University would like to see happen here in the United States more often.

“I find it amazing, and refreshing, that Interpol-Europol have focused this Operation Opson on a underappreciated product risk. Most times, consumers and even lawmakers, consider product counterfeiting to be a technical problem with economic losses. While they may understand the risks of pharmaceutical drug counterfeiting, they are often unaware of the food risks,” said Spink. “Any and every type of food fraud has a public health vulnerability – we may not have experienced an actual public health incident, but the bad guys are not following good manufacturing practices.”

Photo courtesy of Europol.