≡ Menu

Fancy a cat curry or rat kebab, anyone? #foodfraud

It seems that last year’s horsemeat scandal was just the tip of the iceberg as far as food fraud is concerned. It’s not only suppliers to supermarkets who have been duping both the retailer and the public. In the past couple of weeks the results of tests by the Food Standards Agency and the consumer group, Which? have been published which might make you think twice before ordering a lamb takeaway.

No lamb in lamb dishes

Both studies revealed that, within the samples tested, lamb was being substituted or combined with cheaper meats such as pork, beef, turkey or chicken, but also what could possibly be vermin, or pets such as cats and dogs. The FSA tested 145 lamb dishes and of these 25 were found to contain just beef, whilst a further 43 products contained other meats.

In the Which? survey of 30 takeaway lamb curries and 30 minced lamb kebabs from outlets in Birmingham and London, 40% were found to contain a mixture of other meats or no lamb. More than one in ten contained only beef. Five of the dishes contained meat which could not be identified.

Adulteration of food and drink found to be rife

Additionally, tests by councils in West Yorkshire and Leicester trading standards officers found widespread mislabelling and adulteration of foods, particularly meat products such as sausages, curries and burgers.

Earlier in the year, results of 900 food and drink products tested at a public laboratory in West Yorkshire revealed yet more evidence of deception. As well as adulterated and substituted meat there were other worrying trends. For instance fruit juice and soft drink samples tested contained additives which are not permitted in the EU; alcoholic drinks fell far short of their advertised alcohol content and there was an instance where vodka contained isopropanol – a disinfectant.

Perhaps the item which was one of the most misleading was a herbal slimming tea. Not only did it not contain herbs, or indeed tea, it contained 13 times the recommended dose of withdrawn prescription drug Subutramine, used to treat obesity.

Eroding consumer trust in food and drink products

This type of information shows us that some unscrupulous manufacturers are deliberately seeking to deceive the consumer (and in many cases the retailer) by selling adulterated, substandard and, in some cases, dangerous goods.  The customer has a right to know that what they are eating or drinking is what they think it is. They don’t want to find out they’ve been ripped off because what they thought was lamb was in fact beef or vermin, or that the vodka they drank was 99% water.

In many situations, the products have been substituted or combined with another product which are not injurious to health. For example, if we look back to ‘Horsegate’, horse meat in itself will not cause harm to humans, provided that it has not become contaminated. The problem comes when religious and ethical beliefs or allergies and food intolerances are taken into account.

Religious and ethical concerns

Muslims or Jewish people would be very distressed to find that the lamb dish they were eating contained pork. Similarly some Indian religions view cows as sacred, so don’t eat beef, and some religions will only eat Halal meat. Some retailers and restaurant chains have recently been forced to reconsider their policies on Halal after it was reveled that many of them are offering Halal meat products without clear labelling, leading to an outcry from consumers concerned about welfare issues. Vegetarians or vegans would be upset if they found out that due to mislabelling or deliberate deception they had eaten something that contained meat, and the same goes for consumers who have eaten incorrectly labelled meat dishes.

Allergen labelling

Then there are the problems associated with food allergies. It’s estimated that 21 million people in the UK suffer from at least one allergy. Moreover at least one person in every hundred has coeliac disease – a digestive condition where a person has a severe reaction to gluten. If every ingredient is not listed, there is the chance that a consumer can become seriously ill.

The main foods which can cause allergies are:

1. Cereals containing gluten.

2. Crustaceans.

3. Eggs.

4. Fish, except:

5. Peanuts.

6. Soybeans.

7. Milk (including lactose).

8. Nuts, i.e. almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts and Queensland nuts

9. Celery.

10. Mustard.

11. Sesame seeds.

12. Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre expressed as SO2.

13. Lupin.

14. Molluscs.

These 14 allergens must be included on the packaging or labels of foods which contain them.  In severe cases, ingestion, touch or smell (particularly of peanuts) can cause anaphylactic shock and even death. There are new labelling laws which state that all manufacturers must embolden all allergens in an ingredients list so that they are easily recognisable. As long as all manufacturers comply with this (and the majority do), the customer should be able to buy with confidence.  To make sure that your company is compliant with the latest labelling regulations, check out our Creative legal Labelling course, or make sure that you are taking all reasonable steps with regard to allergens with our Managing Food Allergens in Manufacturing course.

Those companies found to be breaking the rules with regard to food substitution and adulteration will be subject to fines and/or closure. The FSA has threatened the takeaways falling foul of the rules with fines of up to £5,000.

Will we ever be free of food fraud?

Regular testing seems to be the only way to verify that what we are buying is the same as what we are being told we are buying. Paper trails are not enough if the intention is to deliberately deceive. As Professor Chris Elliott of the Department of Environment put it: “Whenever issues about food contamination and adulteration are looked for in a serious way, they are found. Without rigorous monitoring programmes, cheats will always try to take advantage.”