Mon, Jul 01, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Food fraud being fed by EU’s financial crisis

From counterfeit cod to sham champagne, food fraud is far more widespread than authorities previously suspected, with imposter ingredients such as engine grease in olive oil or high levels of methanol in vodka posing a danger to consumers

By Stephen Castel and Doreen Carvajal  /  NY Times News Service, GREAT DALBY, England

“They tried to do as much as they could to replicate the real thing,” Mackinnon said. “They were very professional, there was attention to detail.”

The secret plant was so well-hidden that it was detected only when someone suspected in another investigation led authorities to the spot in 2009.

Though Eddishaw worked through intermediaries and used pay-as-you-go cellphone numbers, investigators tracked his calls, proving from the location where they were made that the phone belonged to him and linking him to a fraud that brought him a seven-year prison term.

The plot fits a pattern, identified by Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, which says organized crime groups have capitalized on the economic downturn.

“In response to reduced consumer spending power, counterfeiters have expanded their range of products,” a recent Europol report said.

In addition to the traditional counterfeit luxury product, organized crime groups “now also counterfeit daily consumer goods such as detergents, foodstuffs, cosmetic products and pharmaceuticals,” the report added.

University of Minnesota associate professor Shaun Kennedy estimated that 10 percent of food that consumers buy in the developed world was adulterated. Because the profit margins for foodstuffs are often within single digits, “if you dilute by 2 percent, that’s a big deal.”

He cited a report from the US’ Grocery Manufacturers Association saying that economic adulteration and counterfeiting of global food and consumer products was expected to cost the industry US$10 billion to US$15 billion a year.

“Mostly the perpetrators are not intending to cause anyone harm — that would be bad for repeat business — often they don’t understand the potential impact,” Kennedy added.

Investigators say a huge array of deceptions exist. Simple ones involve presenting cheap products as branded or top-quality ones, like selling catfish as sea bream, labeling farmed salmon as wild or marketing factory-produced eggs as organic or free-range. For example, in February, the German authorities began investigating about 160 farms suspected of breaking rules on organic and free-range egg production.

In other cases, cheaper ingredients are added to genuine products to increase profit margins. Sometimes vegetable oil goes into chocolate bars, or pomegranate juice, wine, coffee, honey or olive oil is adulterated with water, sweeteners or cheaper substitutes.

Whenever there is tampering, there are potential risks to health. Indian restaurants in Britain have been prosecuted for adding ground peanuts to almond powder, which poses a risk to allergy sufferers. Food experts say that engine oil is among the substances found in olive oil.

In a week-long food fraud crackdown last year, the French authorities seized 90.7 tonnes of fish, seafood and frogs legs whose origin was incorrectly labeled; 1 tonne of fake truffle shavings; 500kg of inedible pastries; false Parmesan cheese from the US and Egypt; and liquor from a Dutch company marketed as tequila. They also found fraudulent Web sites claiming to sell caviar.

Illegally fished and contaminated shellfish often finds its way to fish markets. Even the fish that is safe to eat may not be what consumers think it is, as shown by the case of a fish and chip shop owner in Plymouth, England, who was fined last year for selling a cheaper Asian river fish called panga as cod.

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