The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR is designed to put you off your dinner.
This Sunday 6th March it’s Mother’s Day in the UK, but rather than do a lengthy, meaningful and no doubt terrifying psychoanalytic article about the relationship between mother and child, I’m going to focus on a different holiday (because I’m my own man damn it). In case you didn’t already know, this Sunday it’s also National Frozen Food Day in the U.S.A. (where else right?), and what better way to honour it than focussing on all the dodgy dealings of the food industry. Hold on to your stomach.
In 2013 the horse meat scandal broke and confirmed what many of the turkey twizzler generation suspected all along – if you are what you eat, most of us are a fraud. But after the jokes died down (personal favourite: don’t worry – horse wasn’t the mane ingredient) and the public had been placated with enough terrible stock photos of food scientists checking food for various types of DNA, the world turned and the whole ugly business carried on as usual.
There are several reasons large scale food fraud is so popular (think I’m exaggerating? here, here and here say otherwise): firstly, it is a low risk, high reward venture. The penalties that criminal groups incur if caught with their fingers in illicit pies is minimal, bordering on a slap on the wrist when compared to the lengthy sentences handed down for drug related felonies.
There’s no greater illustration of this systemic weakness than the case of Castle Cheese, a U.S. based company who were recently found to have supplied fake Parmesan cheese for 30 years. Even worse, according to a report by Food and Drug Administration, the actual product contained a significant percentage of wood pulp and “no Parmesan cheese was used” (plus this substantiates my belief that American cheese is awful, so it must be true). Despite this obviously long-term and intentional fraud, the company’s president only faces a year-long jail sentence and a $100,000 fine. Not bad given they had $19 million in sales in 2013.
We may well expect this from a country that thinks that anything less than 30 pieces of insect in 100g of peanut butter is just an “aesthetic” problem, but if you’re inclined to think the high level of tolerance for this kind of crime is restricted to the U.S., think again. Even in the Netherlands a man who sold 300 tonnes of horse meat as beef only got sentenced to two and a half years. Admittedly, no one was hurt, but he didn’t know that and the discovery of phenylbutzone in horse carcasses means they easily could have been.
Another advantage food fraud has over other rackets is the vast customer base; everybody’s gotta eat so it’s pretty much a captive audience. This makes the scope for fraud enormous because the crime can vary from simple mislabelling to make the product worth more, like labelling farmed salmon as wild, to extremely sophisticated, such as adding melamine to milk to make the protein content appear higher. The latter case occurred in the U.S. a few years ago and resulted in the tragic death of six infants and hospitalised many more.
Although this is a particularly galling example, more often than not the ingredients cut into food are benign. This is not done as a socially responsible gesture aimed at maintaining the health of Joe Public, it’s done in the knowledge that people getting poisoned tends to arouse the interest of the authorities.
These criminal organisations have invested heavily in the fake food business and in most countries they are one step (at least) ahead of law enforcement. The UK is particularly behind the curve. Despite setting up a food fraud database as part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2007, there was little movement on the issue until after the horse meat scandal. A root and branch analysis of food supply networks in the UK was published in the Elliot review in 2014. Elliot’s suggestions were hardly rocket science, for example, the creation of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), as part of the FSA so food fraud investigations can be centralised. Elliot has since criticised the FSA for misinterpreting his report and waiting for two years before actually actively investigating anything. They still haven’t started actively investigating.
Government cut-backs and general mismanagement have also played their part in the problem. At the height of the horse meat scandal a report by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee claimed that the Border Force “neglected to examine freight for illicit goods” after having made 500 staff redundant between 2010 and 2012.
People may argue back and forth about the austerity program, but it’s hard to see the logic in trimming border force budgets when the result is an estimated loss of half a billion pounds annually in beer smuggling alone. In fact, the all-party parliamentary beer group (yes, that is a thing) estimates that duty has not been paid on 10-20% of all cans and bottles on sale in the UK.
Couple this with cuts to local government, which have led to a reduction in the number of trading-standards officers and it’s little surprise that criminals see this as a chance to cash in. It seems more and more like the health of the nation is being put at risk by negligence and ignorance at various levels.
In fairness to the government, despite further cuts to local authorities, last November’s spending review did promise an increase in spending on the border force. While this is welcome news, I (cynically) suspect that this has much more to do with searching freight for illegal migrants than for suspect food.
The Elliot review also encouraged a zero tolerance approach towards food fraud:
“In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive”.
While this is definitely a step in the right direction, when there’s no-one investigating it’s difficult to prosecute and the whole thing reeks of an empty threat.
Further to this, the globalisation of the food process, with multiple suppliers in different countries makes the fraud difficult to trace. This is especially true in highly processed foods where discerning which of the ingredients introduced the contamination is the investigative equivalent of unscrambling an egg.
The extent of the problem and the seemingly pitiful effort made to resolve it has led to reduced consumer confidence and shunning of guilty brands. This was highlighted by the sale of the European operations of the Findus Group, who were caught selling horse meat in their already grim crispy pancakes. This may seem like a victory for consumers, but the parent company Young’s Seafood made £500 million on the sale and most Findus meals are going to be shamelessly re-branded as “Chef’s Classics”.
In all, the fraudsters are hardly feeling the brunt of consumer backlash and will continue to take advantage of a poorly managed and under investigated food network. Hopefully confidence will return when NFCU investigations become active later this year, but until then we all have a reason to be a bit long in the face.