Reports about “plastic rice” are likely incorrect according to a food fraud expert who says it could have been actual rice that had been poorly stored for up to a decade.

Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, said he has been investigating rice fraud for a number of years.

“That all started off by lots of reports coming from different parts of the world about what was called plastic rice. People were claiming that they were being sold rice that was made from plastic. As someone who studies food fraud I was quite interested in this,” he told Food Safety News while he was in Edinburgh to meet the head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU).

“The first thing, when we looked at the economics, actually plastic is more expensive than rice so you (know) it is not made from plastic. Then you think why would people think they are eating rice made from plastic? It took quite a long time to uncover what we think was going on and I spent some time in South East Asia asking lots of questions.

“Plastic rice is not made from plastic, it is rice that has been stored for up to 10 years and not stored particularly well. The rice had become badly contaminated with molds and instead of that nice white color, had turned into an unpleasant green color and what the fraudsters had done was they had taken that rice out of the stores and bleached it to get back the white color.

“The only problem was whenever you bleach rice it loses the nice shiny surface so to get that back they sprayed it with paraffin wax. With that paraffin coating on it, it didn’t cook properly, hence the reason it was called plastic rice.”

Smartphone-based analysis

The university has been trying to develop quick analytical tests for the past couple of years so people can detect the difference between genuine rice and product that has been treated badly in terms of chemicals.

“There has been a big push in terms of how science and technology can detect and deter food fraud,” said Elliott.

“In terms of my own work at Queen’s University, we are looking at how we can use the thing that we all have in our pocket to detect food fraud. So doing a lot of smartphone-based analysis. Using fingerprints of food we can build these mathematical models of what the fingerprint of food should look like. Just six weeks ago I was in a marketplace in Ghana checking for fraud in rice using my smartphone.”

Elliott said Europe has a good food safety network so people would not try to sell very low quality product into the region because the systems would pick it up.

“In the U.K. and wider Europe we don’t need consumers to check if our food has been fraudulently produced. We’ve got a great infrastructure of government agencies and a fantastic food industry that are doing all that for us,” he said.

“What we want to do is put these tools in the hands of people in the food industry, government inspectors and environmental health officers to do that checking for us. In the developing world it is very different because that infrastructure doesn’t exist there, we want to put those tools in the hands of consumers to make informed decisions.

“The plastic rice is being sold to parts of the world that don’t have those checks and measures. It is not just in South East Asia; in Sub-Saharan Africa it crops up regularly where it is not only rice, they are generally sold the worst of the worst. Anything that cannot go into Europe because of food safety standards will end up getting dumped in Sub-Saharan Africa. They will sell to countries where they don’t have the measures to check and test for these things.”

Elliott led the independent review of Britain’s food system following the 2013 horsemeat scandal and is joint coordinator of EU-China-Safe, an EU Horizon 2020 project that runs until August 2021. There are 16 participants from the EU and 17 from China with an aim to improve food safety and combat fraud.

Predictions and problems caused by Brexit

A lot of work goes into trying to predict what the next problem might be.

“We’re developing predictive analytics, gathering lots of information from different parts of the world,” said Elliott.

“Thinking about what is happening to our climate and the way food is traded around the world, to try and predict where there will be problems, shortages and more demand than availability of foodstuffs. That is not only to guide our research but we inform the industry and government agencies about what we think their surveillance program should be not now but six months or a year down the road.”

Regarding Brexit, Elliott said it is not a question of if it will cause problems but how big they will be.

“As soon as you start to change rules and regulations that gives a massive opportunity for people who cheat and that happens the world over. There will be potentially a massive amount of fraud around tariffs as they are going to change. I think the potential for lots of smuggling from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain will happen as well,” he said.

“The other big factor, the thing that worries me even more, is that the U.K. will get cut off from the established European networks that share information and intelligence. Fraudsters aren’t silly, they will know the disconnect between the U.K. and Europe and they will maximize that opportunity.

“There will be difficulties in terms of the informal relationships as well, I know the regulatory agencies across the country can pick up the phone and talk to their counterparts in Germany or France but will that be the same case going forward, I doubt it somehow. It has not been a frictionless proposition about leaving Europe, I think it is going to take years to rebuild some of those relationships that we once had.”

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