Do food manufacturers really know what goes into their products? That sounds like a simple question. However, recent news stories about horse meat found in beef products from reputable companies such as Burger King, Nestle and Ikea raise questions not just about whether consumers know what is in a product, but whether manufacturers themselves are aware that they contain adulterated ingredients.
In the cases of the contaminated meat, it was not the manufacturers who were substituting horse meat in their products, but rather the suppliers who provided them with tainted ingredients. While manufacturers look for the most affordable way to produce a quality product, suppliers are sometimes providing them with adulterated products for the purpose of achieving their own financial gain. This is called food fraud.
Food fraud encompasses several types of economically motivated adulteration of food products, such as:
- Making unapproved enhancements
- Substitution of ingredients
- Non-disclosure of additives such as sulfites to hide deterioration
- Concealment of known damage or infection
This has become a hot issue both in the United States and abroad, and is not just limited to the recent horse meat scandal. For example, a Chinese milk scandal in 2008 found infant formula and other milk products were contaminated with melamine, which causes milk to appear to have higher protein content. The scandal led to 13 infant deaths from malnutrition. In Florida, a recent series of class actions against grocery chains alleges mislabeling of ultra-filtered honey which contains no pollen — and therefore no fingerprint to trace the product to a legitimate source. Acquiring adulterated or mislabeled food products can pose serious risks for companies in the food distribution industry, including regulatory sanctions, product liability claims, consumer fraud actions and possible criminal liability.
Consumer advocacy groups and the FDA have responded in various ways to protect and educate consumers and the food industry about the potential for food fraud. Recently, the FDA finalized a regulation providing greater authority for the agency to prevent certain food products from entering the market. Under this rule, the FDA “can order an administrative detention if there is reason to believe that an article of food is adulterated or misbranded1.” Previously, the agency needed evidence of contamination and mislabeling and also had to show that the adulteration posed grave health hazards. The new rule gives the FDA greater power to proactively prevent food fraud rather than only being able to react to food safety problems after they occur.