Q&A - Food Fraud
Food fraud according to a food chemist | Q&A
When you buy paprika, pepper or garlic powder, you assume you are getting the product that is on the package. Paprika from paprika and garlic powder from garlic. Logical right? Practice sometimes proves otherwise. Food fraud is just around the corner. The longer the chain from producer to you or the higher the prices, the greater the chance of food fraud. But you as a quality manager are ultimately responsible for the product. So how do you avoid getting scammed? Food chemist Vera Montag answers these and other pressing questions.
What is food fraud?
"As a rule, spices are very expensive. That turns out to be a reason to commit fraud. Suppose you have paprika, but it is a bit browner than you would like. Then the producer can add dye for the distinctive red color. That's food fraud. Just like when you mix garlic powder with starch. That way the powder is whiter and it's cheaper than 100 percent garlic powder. As soon as someone deliberately modifies the appearance, taste or substance of herbs or spices and does not communicate that, we speak of food fraud."
Why do producers commit food fraud?
"The reason is very simple: cost. Spices are expensive. You can imagine that one kilogram of pure garlic powder is more expensive than half a kilogram of garlic powder mixed with half a kilogram of starch. What you really have to consider: as soon as cheating is too expensive or takes too much time, the producer is never going to do it. There's always a financial benefit to it. And usually a time advantage as well."
If I am responsible as a quality manager, am I smart to have all parties audited?
"The answer to that question is not a simple 'yes' or 'no'. As a company, you are responsible for safe and fraud-free products. If fraud has nevertheless been committed, then you must demonstrate that checks were carried out, but that they slipped through the cracks. If you have not had it checked, you have been negligent.
At the same time, I can imagine that if you have a good relationship with a supplier and work together for a long time, the need for verification is less. But remember: your direct supplier may have its affairs in order, but you don't know which party in the chain is spicing things up. So when you purchase from multiple corporations from different countries that you don't know well, I always say 'yes'. If you know the supplier personally, then the question is how big is the chain prior to the supplier."
Fraud or deception
Failure to fully inform the consumer: is that fraud or deception? There is a thin line between the two. The main difference: food fraud involves intentional behavior; deception can happen by accident. So adding dye to a spice and not mentioning it on the packaging is definitely fraud.
Is food fraud a risk to our health?
"Normally, food fraud in herbs and spices does not have a big risk to consumers' health. This is because you consume very little of it. Suppose you use one milligram of dye for one kilogram of paprika and eat one gram of it. Then the effect on your health is nil. Food fraud with herbs and spices is not necessarily about health risks, but about misleading the consumer. The product then does not meet expectations and you are cheating customers.
But it is possible that the food fraud committed is harmful to health. For example, certain dyes have been banned in Europe because they are carcinogenic. Checking for this is always important. Such substances are banned in Europe, but not in other countries. If you discover them in the spices, you can throw away the batch. The question is whether there has been fraud. If the product comes from a country where the substance may be used, can you still call it fraud?"
When is it okay for producers to modify products?
"First, when it is communicated honestly and clearly to the consumer. Oregano, for example, is sometimes mixed with citrus leaves. Oregano is by itself rich in volatile oils, which provide the strong, spicy flavor. If you use this herb on meat, the flavor may be a bit too strong. To negate this, the herb is mixed with citrus leaves. When this is mentioned on the product, this is fine and for a good reason."
How does GBA Group find food fraud?
"Added dye and spices mixed with other ingredients are the easiest to find. In a general analysis we detect this easily. This is also because we know what we are looking for. It only becomes difficult if you come to us because you bought a herb very cheaply and you have doubts about its authenticity. Then we don't know exactly what we are looking for and we do more extensive research into various matters. For example, into colorants and the presence of other ingredients that we might not have thought of immediately.
Does food fraud happen often?
"Fortunately not. Nowadays, the producer attaches great value to the relationship with the customer. If a producer commits food fraud, it will put a dent in that trust. Nobody wants that. That is why producers will think twice before embarking on this venture. Nevertheless, it is wise to have batches from different producers inspected if you have any doubts. If, as a quality manager, you discover the fraud, you can go back to the producer and you are not responsible for faulty products that end up on the shelves."