The image in this month's edition is of a restaurant in Chengdu, China, above the doors of the restaurant are the words "real cow" - which begs the question, what's "not real cow" and should we be concerned? There are examples of "fake cow", some are quite amusing such as the German couple who have a fake cow in their garden because it is classier than a gnome, others are quite distressing such as the case in China last year when 22 tons of "fake beef" were seized by authorities. The fake beef in question was actually cheaper pork that was treated with "chemicals including paraffin wax and industrial salts to make it look like it came from a cow".
Are the incidents of fraud, manipulation and misrepresentation on the increase or are we simply becoming more sensitive to stories around food? Although there are limitations around the research approach that we took, we had a look at the frequency with which food related terms appeared in google searches (alongside a year reference), the results for food fraud, contamination, adulteration, mislabeling, and origin are presented below. There are a few things that are immediately noticed - the incidence of reporting in 2007 and 2008 of food adulteration are both likely to be due to melamine. In 2007 pet food was contaminated with melamine and in 2008 the Sanlu adulteration of dairy products was widely reported. Another interesting point is the rise in reporting of food fraud compared with relative stability around issues of contamination and food adulteration. There are some caveats to interpreting these data, for example, the data can't be adjusted for the increased number of internet users per year, nor can the search terms be considered exhaustive, and the data for 2014 is for a partial year (January to August).
However, we are still left wondering about the scope of the problem and whether we really should be concerned about what we eat (or feed our pets for that matter). Havocscope, the online community that try to quantify the cost of fraud, estimate that $49 billion (USD) is lost to food fraud a year - it is difficult to accurately quantify the impact of fraud because it can only be determined when someone is caught and fraudsters tend to continue their activity until the threat of detection outweighs the benefit of their action or they are actually caught.
Of course not all food fraud will harm you to the extent of the melamine contaminations, but damage is still done, at the very least consumer confidence is shaken. The recent exploitation of consumers preference for free-range eggs is a good case in-point with those who prefer free-range products wondering how they can trust the labeling by a producer. And, it's not just trust that is required. As Kimberly Lord Stewart points out in Eating Between the Lines: "Beyond avoiding starvation and hunger, the reasons we buy one food brand over another are complicated. It's a matter of taste preference, brand loyalty, price, convenience, health and even social values". In addition, skills in how to interpret labeling (for example, for eggs: free range, cage raised, barn raised, grain fed, omega 3, organic, pastured, vegetarian fed, cage free, etc) are difficult to acquire unless large amounts of time can be dedicated to researching producers and verifying that the product available on the shelf is actually the product from the producer. The reality is that for many of us, our purchasing decisions are made on the basis of trust - and not just trusting the producer but trusting the supermarket to have appropriate systems in place (arguably these have been slow to work in the past with over 200,000 consumers purchasing the "free-range eggs" of Forest Hill Farms before action was taken) and trusting 3rd party verifiers and government agencies. The flip side of this is that when a supermarket, verifier or agency fails us our trust in them also erodes.
IRA producing and selling fake vodka:Irish authorities have succeeded in tracking down an illegal alcohol operation in the Border region. The source of the alcohol is likely to be Eastern Europe and the operation appears well-established and extensive.
USA in group of top offenders: According to the USA Group, FoodSentry, the USA is one of the top ten offenders for food safety violations with food exports. These results may be influenced by volume of exports - the top ten offenders in of frequency were: India, China, Mexico, France, United States, Vietnam, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Turkey and Spain. Excessive or illegal pesticide contamination made up over a third of all incidents.
Campylobacter widespread: Campylobacter affects an estimated 280,000 people per year in the UK and it is estimated that one in four of these cases comes from contaminated poultry. A UK study recently found Campylobacter on 59% of fresh chicken tested.