Pick up any item in the supermarket and read through the ingredient labeling. Nearly all of the ingredients listed have the potential to be vulnerable to food fraud, according to food fraud investigator Mitchell Weinberg. “Around the world, food fraud is an epidemic. In every single country where food is produced or grown, food fraud is occurring,” Weinberg said to a roomful of food safety professionals at last month’s annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, OR. Weinberg, a former attorney, is founder, president and CEO of INSCATECH, a food fraud detection agency that plants “undercover operatives” in foreign food facilities that supply food and ingredients to the U.S. food industry. Joining him on a panel presentation discussing food fraud was George Hughes, senior adviser for the Office of Criminal Investigations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Andrew Clarke, director of certification and audit for Maple Leaf Foods. According to the presenters, food fraud is much more prevalent than most American consumers understand. It affects everything from seafood to milk, spices and even food coloring — anything with “even a moderate economic value,” as Weinberg put it. Food fraud is, of course, not a new phenomenon, as Clarke pointed out in his presentation. Since the 13th century, Britain has had laws against diluting wine with water, adding ash to pepper, or padding flour with chalk. But food fraud trends appear to be worsening these days. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of fraud cases involving deadly adulterants, as well as an increase in fraudulent labeling and legal prosecution for food fraud. More high-profile food fraud cases than the speakers had time to address have occurred just in the past year. In June, more than 100,000 tons of smuggled, frozen, expired meat — some of it decades old — was seized in China from groups selling it for consumption. In September, global walnut crop failures lead to an increase in fraudulent peanut substitution. South Africa experienced an enormous recall of supermarket products in October after they were found to be colored with banned dyes. A fraud case can be as simple as a steak producer selling a cut as certified Angus when it truly isn’t, Clarke said. The most visceral audience reaction came from another case out of China: undercover video of fake rice being produced in China out of plastic resin and sweet potato. “Three cups of this rice is equivalent to eating a plastic shopping bag,” Weinberg said. FDA has approximately 200 agents worldwide in its criminal investigations office, most of who came from the Secret Service or the FBI. They investigate cases of food fraud, product tampering, and the manufacture of counterfeit or unapproved drugs, according to Hughes. Often, Hughes said, food fraud can indicate that a company’s executives are committing other illegal or dubious acts. In the case of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and its fraudulent sale of contaminated peanuts, for example, the company was also found to be selling cheap peanuts substituted in with a pricier variety, he said. In big fraud cases, FDA prosecutors may charge companies with everything from conspiracy (if more than one person worked together to deceive) to mail fraud (if fraudulent items were shipped). “Our objective is to hit these guys so hard with as many violations as possible that [the industry will be compelled to] do the right thing,” Hughes said. The recent criminal case involving PCA and its former CEO, Stewart Parnell, will likely see the biggest penalty in FDA’s criminal prosecution history, Hughes added. Worldwide, INTERPOL tracks food fraud activities in 47 countries, according to Clarke. Those included counterfeit alcohol, bottled water from unclean sources, and fish treated with hydrogen peroxide to fake freshness. Despite the dire statistics, the panelists discussed efforts to curb food fraud, including increased prosecution and the need for food companies to enhance their interaction with suppliers. In many cases, U.S. companies should be physically inspecting their food suppliers or finding some other method to monitor their activities to make sure that no fraud is taking place, Weinberg said. No other efforts can deter misbehavior like the threat of losing business, he added.
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