Wed, May 07, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Food labs take on organized crime

From adulterated olive oil to counterfeit vodka, the global trade in fake food is booming — and for gangs it is a less risky operation than the drug industry. Now UK scientists are in the vanguard of the battle

By Jamie Doward and Amy Moore  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

At first glance the sprawling campus amid glorious countryside looks an unlikely base from which to wage war against Italy’s most feared crime organization, the ’Ndrangheta.

And yet the laboratories of Campden BRI, once part of the University of Bristol and now a major research hub, are, in their own quiet way, playing a vital role in tackling organized crime.

The laboratories are not conducting forensic tests on specks of blood or splinters of bone. Rather, they have been contracted by the British government’s Rural Payments Agency to carry out chemical tests to establish the purity of olive oil which, since March, has been subject to new EU regulations designed to ensure that consumers get what they believe they are paying for.

This is bad news for the ’Ndrangheta and other organized criminal gangs, which for decades have been assiduously passing off inferior olive oil and oil from other vegetable sources as the premium extra virgin variety.

According to the European parliament’s food safety committee, olive oil is the product most at risk of food fraud, and the rewards for its adulteration are substantial.

Cheap pomace olive oil — extracted from olive residue using chemicals — sells for £0.32 (US$0.54) per 100ml, compared with £1.50 for extra virgin.

“Olive oil is a valuable commodity, and fraud is on the increase,” said Julian South, head of chemistry and biochemistry at Campden BRI.

“Food authenticity continues to be a high-profile issue, and the testing of olive oils is taking place in all European Union member states,” South said.

Jenny Morris, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, acknowledged that olive oil was ripe for fraud.

“A lot of people buy virgin olive oil,” she said. “They like the fact that it is high quality and they are prepared to pay a premium. If you are a criminal and you get hold of some oil, not necessarily olive oil, you can color it green with a bit of chlorophyll and make a lot of money out of it. Because of its distribution, it is sometimes hard to track.”

However, many other products are almost as vulnerable to criminal adulteration as olive oil.

Other popular and lucrative frauds include diluting honey with cheap sugar syrup, passing off methanol as vodka, mixing inferior rice with premium basmati and switching cheap fish such as catfish with expensive alternatives like haddock.

It certainly beats mixing cocaine with bulking agents like talcum powder — an activity that is far riskier than corrupting the food chain, according to experts.

“At the moment the risks for criminals operating in this field are low because they are not routinely coming up against trained and organized professional investigators,” Gary Copson, a former London Metropolitan police detective and adviser to the government’s Elliot review into food chain integrity, told a parliamentary committee earlier this year.

“While there is excellent work being done by trading standards, it is generally focused at a lower level. They don’t have the capacity to work at the higher level that we have seen and suspect is in the background,” Copson said, according to Environmental Health News.

The Elliot review, due to report by early June, is to help to highlight the extent to which organized crime has penetrated food distribution networks.

This story has been viewed 2204 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top