In 2014 the UK was rocked by the horsemeat scandal when tests done on ‘beef’ in local supermarket retailers revealed that it wasn’t beef at all, but rather horse from a dubious source. While this saga made headline news across the globe it is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Food fraud is common practice in the food manufacturing industry globally.
In an effort to cut costs and increase profits many unscrupulous manufacturers replace primary ingredients with substitutes. Most of the time these adulterants go undetected and consumers are blissfully unaware of what they are really buying.
The food industry’s shame
Two of the most common fraudsters are wheat and corn flour which are used as bulking agents for dry produce and processed foods. By adding thickeners to sauces, manufacturers use less primary ingredients. The argument is often used that these ingredients are necessary to stabilize the foods and ensure a decent shelf life. But is this really the case or simply an excuse to make more profit?
As an example: cinnamon or other ground spices are often bulked up with wheat flour. Sliced bread has numerous dubious ingredients and your average bottle of tomato sauce contains a whole host of additional artificial ingredients. There are those that liken processed food to a chemical cocktail rather than anything resembling real food.
Hidden ingredients can cause serious harm
The average processed food item has more than 10 ingredients, most of which have numeric or chemical names that the average consumer can’t identify. Few of these ingredients add to the taste of the food and so the solution is often to mask this by adding sugar. The result is that sugar is one of the most common ingredients found in processed foods and the average person is not consuming just a spoonful of sugar in their tea. If they consume processed foods regularly they more likely are consuming in excess of a cup of sugar a day which can have a massive impact on their health.
The olive oil industry has been rocked by scandals showing that even extra virgin olive oil has been adulterated with nut, corn or sunflower seed oils. This is something of concern for people who have nut allergies. Tea and coffee has been found to contain twigs and other alien leaves. Papaya seeds have been palmed off as black pepper kernels and even cows milk has been found to be watered down, adulterated with sheeps milk or even artificial chemicals. Commercially produced fruit juice seldom contains any nutrients found in the original fruit. Instead sugar, clouding agents and concentrates are reconstituted and labelled as freshly squeezed juice.
Why should you be concerned about food fraud?
There is a growing movement among consumers to become more aware of food ingredients and what they are really eating when they buy supermarket food. Traditionally most consumers simply assumed that a product such as custard, for example, will contain nothing more than eggs, milk, sugar, flour and some vanilla flavouring. Food manufacturers have taken advantage of the consumer’s blind trust. However, when consumers start to read the ingredients label and discover they don’t recognize any of the ingredients their response it to put the item back on the shelf. They then go home and google how to make custard and are unlikely to ever purchase that item again. In other words as consumers become more aware of food ingredients, sales of processed foods are likely to decline.
The opportunity that food fraud presents for food manufacturers
Trends show that consumers will rather support small scale providers who provide good food products made from real food. At this stage consumers are even willing to pay a premium for these products. Therefore food manufacturers that can find a way to ethically source and produce quality food will be able to achieve market share in a rapidly growing healthier food industry. Transparency, accurate labelling and elimination of chemical additives from foods will make products more attractive to consumers. Rather than trying to compete with the big industry players on price and production, there is an opportunity for smaller manufacturers to secure a niche in the industry by producing quality foodstuffs.