Food Safety News recently sat down with Mitchell Weinberg at IAFP 2015 in Portland, OR, to discuss the extent of global food fraud and how we can combat it. Weinberg is the founder, president and CEO of INSCATECH, a food fraud investigation firm.

Watch the video interview here or find highlights below:

On the scope of global food fraud:

It’s probably a lot bigger than what we could conceivably imagine. In approximately 50 to 60 percent of the investigations we do, we’re finding food fraud. That’s across the spectrum of all food, period, in virtually every country in the world.

The impression is that it’s happening in certain regions of the world, but it’s frankly a lot more pervasive than most people would expect.

On the level of food fraud to which Americans are exposed:

We’re not immune at all. The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] inspects about 1 percent of all the food that comes into the country, so we are all potentially the victims of food fraud and not aware of it.

I’d say it’s probably more pervasive in other parts of the world, but it’s definitely happening in the United States. I would say with things like seafood, honey, there’s no question that the people selling these products are aware they’re committing fraud. It really varies depending on the commodity being sold.

On common examples of food fraud:

Start thinking of products you wouldn’t normally think about. When you see a processed food — let’s say a cookie — which has 40 ingredients in it, ask yourself about those individual ingredients. Where does each one come from? How is that ingredient prepared or manufactured?

Think of things like flavorings, juice concentrates, spices and seasonings, oils. Just about everything that comes from outside of the United States is likely to have been compromised in some way, shape, or form, unless it’s in its original form.

So, if you’re getting an orange from Chile or South Africa, that’s probably an orange. Did they use banned pesticides on it? That’s certainly a possibility.

There’s a tremendous amount of fraud with respect to seafood. There’s species fraud, where a fish is represented as one species, but it’s in fact another species.

The conditions under which the seafood is being farmed or grown are frankly deplorable. If you go to a fish farm in Vietnam or Thailand, the conditions are absolutely appalling. Think of fish being raised in a sewer. And then they’re throwing in a bunch of antibiotics and antihistamines and other drugs so that the fish don’t get sick.

Now, when you eat that fish, they’ve ingested that water. They’ve ingested those drugs and antibiotics, and now you’ve ingested those things. So, you have to think that Americans are probably major victims of food fraud without ever knowing it.

Now, if the person committing fraud puts in something that someone is allergic to, like peanut shells in turmeric coming out of India. There are people with peanut allergies, so what’s the impact on someone who eats turmeric and has this severe allergy without knowing there are peanut shells in it?

On the societal health impacts of food fraud:

Seventy to 80 percent of the food consumed in Bangladesh is believed to be adulterated or compromised in some way. What we’ve seen is that there’s a much higher rate of disease in Bangladesh, like cancers and other rare diseases, for which we believe there’s a correlation to the food that’s being consumed.

When you think about it practically, if you’re eating three meals a day and snacking twice a day, and you’re consuming day after day food that’s been compromised or adulterated with a small amount of a toxic substance, what are the cumulative effects on human health? No one really knows, but Bangladesh is the closest guess.

If we had more accurate statistics coming out of India or China, which we don’t, [we’d probably see that] a lot of the diseases coming out of those countries are related to what they’re eating. Similarly, here, we don’t really know what’s going into the food we eat. So, a number of the health problems that are increasing in this country could be attributable to what’s being put in the food, and we just don’t know it.

It’s much more significant than I think anybody realizes.

On how INSCATECH works to prevent food fraud:

We are fundamentally spies. I have a network of intelligence-gathering operatives around the world in food-producing countries who are nationals of the countries where they work, and they work undercover to spy on anybody who handles food ingredients anywhere along the supply chain in those countries. We’ll go right back to the source and follow the food all the way up the supply chain.

We will also, where possible, go undercover into food ingredient production facilities to observe what’s going on. We’re doing our work legally, but extremely discreetly, because what we’re doing is highly dangerous. It puts our operatives at risk, and puts our clients at risk, if anyone were to find out who our clients are.

So, the work that we do is very sensitive, but the way to stop [food fraud] is to observe with your eyes, ears and nose exactly what’s going on. When we report that back to the customers who are buying these ingredients, then they can take steps to avoid the problem. They can stop dealing with specific suppliers, slap their suppliers on the wrist, or they can work with law enforcement to get those suppliers prosecuted because this is a crime.

That’s what you can do to stop it.

What’s not working, frankly, are what are called “food fraud vulnerability assessments.” Those are ways to assess risk in the food supply chain. Frankly speaking, there is really one way to assess risk, and that’s by observing it. Food fraud vulnerability assessments are, frankly, a little bit of a waste of time. What you’re doing is basically trying to figure out what you already know. You know that if you’re sourcing ingredients from China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, wherever it happens to be, there’s a much higher risk of food fraud occurring. You know, based on history, that if it’s a higher-value item, there’s a greater likelihood for food fraud. So, why would you have to go conduct this whole vulnerability assessment to determine where it is? Just use common sense, figuring out where the problem is, and trust but verify.

On how to minimize an individual’s personal exposure to food fraud:

You cannot avoid being a victim of food fraud entirely if you want seasoning on your food. or if you want to cook with oils, unless you make those oils yourself. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to prevent it.

However, buy local and buy domestic. For example, I’ve stopped buying olive oil that comes from Italy, Greece or Spain. I’ve started buying olive oil that comes from California, and let me tell you, the olive oil that’s coming out of California tastes wonderful.

If you’re buying honey, buy from a local beekeeper. Keep it simple.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

  • TP

    Excellent Report
    i have been involved in food processing on both sides of the border since the 80’s.
    What about products that we are sending out of the country?
    Example: Exportation of dog food using tallow that has not been approved for export.
    Example: Fat used in export human foods that have been contaminated with rancid fats.
    With type records used at smaller operations very hard to prove, with out lab analysis per batch.
    Tank volumes/weights are manipulated, to appear that use consumption is on track.
    Lot of work to be done.