Food fraud is increasing, but a new book explains how you can avoid it, says Nick Shanagher

There’s no proof that retailers and restaurants will gain any competitive advantage from the integrity of their food supply network.’

However, there is plenty of evidence that the food supply chain will hoodwink consumers whenever it can, Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple argue in their fascinating book Sorting the Beef from the Bull.

For wholesale buyers of food and beverages, each of the chapters offers insight into the difficulties in ensuring what they pay for is what they get.

Food fraud bookEvershed, who is professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, and Temple, who is a biologist, explain the difficulty in scientifically detecting food fraud, which affects up to 10% of what UK consumers buy.

Take organic food. This is an area where mislabelling is profitable. However, the nitrogen isotopes in a tomato grown with synthetic fertilizers fall between a measure of -6 and +4, and between 0 and +18 in one grown with organic fertilizers. Therefore some non-organic products may seem organic and vice versa.

As a result, most scandals about mislabelling organic products have been brought to light by whistle-blowers.

‘For now, it would appear that the authenticity of organic food still very much relies on the enforcement of strict production standards through rigorous certification processes and site inspections. In other words, a lot of paperwork,’ the authors say.

The scale of food production is so massive that even random testing will not prevent fraud.

‘One could quite reasonably expect that the authenticity of a given food item, processed or other, must be the responsibility of the seller. But the array of foods on offer and the numerous ingredients used to prepare many processed foods makes their authentication by the seller a nearly impossible task,’ the writers argue.

Complex supply chains mean that even if you find a rogue ingredient, pinpointing where it comes from is a formidable challenge.

The authors admit that before they wrote the book, they were unaware that criminals could make artificial hen’s eggs, distinguishable from the real thing only through their lack of shell membrane – the thin layer of skin below the shell.

However, as well as the difficulty of determining fraud scientifically, the authors argue that fraud is exacerbated by most consumers being ‘nothing short of delusional in terms of what food should cost’, unaware of the many steps between the food they buy and the people who grow it.

Manuka honey on a spoonIt is also increased by people’s desire to buy top-quality and highly processed products. For example, 9,700 tonnes of ‘Manuka honey’ is sold every year; however, the world only produces 1,500 tonnes of Manuka honey annually.

Olive oil is another area where there is chronic fraud. ‘The physical similarities of different oils makes a sublime situation for the cheats.’

In 2011, for example, Italy was exporting more olive oil than it was producing.

‘An olive grower in Italy, struggling to keep the family business alive, who watches nearby growers get rich by adulterating their oil with cheaper oils, must be tempted to make their own product stretch a little further, too. It takes a strong moral compass to resist temptation under such conditions.’

Last year, Europol warned that criminals are increasingly turning to the food and beverage industry as an arena to conduct their ‘business’.

The book explains why. For example, there are 32,000 known species of fish. The US recognises 1,800 as foodstuffs. Combine this with all the different names for fish and the different prices each name attracts and the scope for fraud is obvious.

Even at its scariest, the book is underpinned by good sense. Evershed and Temple offer five ways to avoid food fraud: buy whole, recognisable food; rein in the chain; buy from people you trust; don’t fall prey to unrealistic prices; and find the story in your food.

Food fraud is going to get worse before it gets better, they argue. For UK wholesale, this may be a chance to buy ahead of the curve. Sorting the Beef is a useful book to have at a buyer’s elbow.

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As managing director of Newtrade Publishing Nick has over 20 years’ experience of covering retail markets, Nick helps shopkeepers and wholesalers of all sizes to think about what questions are important for themselves and their businesses, and to find answers that work in their shops.



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