The horse-meat storm that broke over Europe two months ago has been in one respect a tempest in a horseshoe, because it posed no threat to human health. That’s not a minor caveat in an industry where, in the U.S. alone, tainted food kills 3,000 people each year and sickens 48 million.
The horse-meat substitution has struck a nerve, however, as people wonder what else they’re eating that isn’t what they think it is.
It could be almost anything. The list of counterfeit foods Interpol found in worldwide food-fraud operations during 2011 and 2012 includes olive oil, tomato sauce, cheese, wine, candy bars, coffee, soup cubes, truffles, caviar, vodka, soy sauce and fruit juice. Consider, too, the undeclared goat, donkey and water buffalo meat that professors at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University recently found in locally produced sausages and hamburgers.
In the U.S., the nonprofit group Oceana recently confirmed that a large share of the fish in groceries and restaurants is something other than what it is sold as. Researchers did DNA tests on more than 1,200 fish samples in 14 metropolitan areas and found a third to be mislabeled. Red snapper was misrepresented so often that the researchers were at pains to find the real thing: Of 120 samples, 113 were a different fish.
Food fraud is as old as the hills. Rogue traders have been adulterating olive oil and alcohol ever since humans started making and selling them. Laws against food adulteration have existed at least since Rome made it a crime punishable by servitude or exile. Scientists have been writing treatises on the subject since at least 1820.
What’s different today is that the food industry has become so sophisticated and supply chains so complex and global that it’s much harder to monitor what goes into a product. There’s more to watch, too: Is that expensive organic turnip really organic? Was that sustainably fished salmon sustainably fished? Is that Champagne really from the Champagne region in France?
Worse, food prices are rising in the midst of a deep economic recession. That’s putting enormous pressure on suppliers to find cheaper ingredients, and the result is rising fraud. The U.K. Food Standards Agency added 50 percent more reports to its food fraud database in 2011 than the previous year. At the same time, budgets for state inspections are falling.
The U.K. agency’s director, Steve Wearne, told Bloomberg View that inspection agencies have to choose: Should they focus on looking for otherwise healthy meat and fish substitutes, or for big money olive oil scams and fake vodka made with methanol and chloroform, which can kill? “We try to strike a balance,” he said, and it tilts toward safety.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is working to expand its presence outside the U.S. to help monitor the global food supply chain, puts the same emphasis on safety, Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told Bloomberg View.
The question is how to inspect smarter and how to incentivize the food industry to police itself better. After all, because food fraud is a breach of trust between seller and buyer, it should be mainly up to food marketers to demonstrate that they are trustworthy.
Greater use of computers to track food and improve transparency can help. The FDA already uses databases to help it make targeted decisions on which imported foods to check for fraud. EU officials are considering adding a shared food authenticity alert system to the one they have for food safety, allowing regulators in Poland to see what their counterparts in Ireland are seeing and helping them to uncover cross-border scams earlier. They should do it.
EU agriculture ministers also are talking about extending to all meats rules that demand certain categories of imported food identify their place of origin. Again, they should do it.
Something more radical may be needed, though. Tesco Plc, the U.K.’s biggest grocery chain whose 60 percent horse meat spaghetti Bolognese became a poster villain, has taken the lead in the U.K. by promising to cut its supply chains shorter and source meat from inside the country wherever it can. That smells of protectionism, but not if it’s a purely commercial decision made by the food retailers to protect their brands. Tesco also promised to spend millions of pounds annually on DNA testing, to make sure its suppliers are delivering the ingredients listed on those boxes of frozen spaghetti Bolognese.
By conducting such testing even sporadically, food sellers can make it harder for fraudsters to operate. The industry now has a new tool to guide it: a public Internet database of thousands of food frauds perpetrated since 1980, compiled by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention.
Another useful database under construction is the International Barcode of Life Working Group’s catalog of DNA barcodes for thousands of fish species, which makes it easier for regulators and food companies alike to verify any fish’s identity.
Some U.S. fisheries are protecting their reputations by using computer tracking. A tracing system developed in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Seafood Trace, has fishermen log information about their catch of shrimp, oysters and fish into a database. That’s updated as the seafood moves through the market chain -- until ultimately the person who buys it for dinner can check what it is and where and when it was caught. The peace of mind this allows consumers may make them more willing to pay a premium for the fish.
There are already laws against mislabeling. Horse carcasses in the EU are required to have passports (Europeans knowingly eat more than 200,000 horses every year). Yet the more information consumers have, and the more transparency there is in the global food supply chain, the harder it will be to dupe us about what we are eating.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org.