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Food fraud – Information and recommendation for consumers

02/27/2015
 

What is a food fraud?

Food fraud can be defined as placing of foodstuffs on the market at which the deficiency concerns the nature, characteristics or origin of the food including significant violation of legislation requirements related to food quality. Foodstuffs could be intentionally modified or incorrectly labelled with the intention to mislead a consumer (in accordance with Food Fraud Task Force, Greta Britain, 2007). Because of this fraud, a consumer then buys a foodstuff that is not what it pretends to be. The only goal of operators in these cases is unjustified financial gain. In some cases these practices may threat human health. 
Consumers may count on generally high standard of quality and also on high level of food safety on the territory of the European Union. However, there are still entrepreneurs that create new methods for circumventing legal regulations and enriching to the detriment of consumers. Supervisory bodies perform inspections based on risk analysis, in other words they focus on the most problematic areas of the market. Nevertheless they simply cannot inspect all foodstuffs placed on the market. Therefore a consumer that knows how to defend his/her rights is the best inspector. Website Food Pillory could be a useful tool informing in particular on non-compliant lots of foodstuffs detected by CAFIA official inspections.

Examples of food frauds where health was at risk

Methanol case

In September 2012, the Czech Republic had to address the issue of the trade with untaxed spirit drinks of unknown origin. The main reason was not the tax evasion, but deaths of consumers as a consequence of consumption of spirit drinks. The national ban of export became the European issue. Methanol was diluted in 1:1 ratio with spirit in the lethal spirit drinks. The death toll almost reached the number of 50. This affair had an immense impact on the whole industry of spirit drinks. Many changes happened as a consequence. The size of packagins for consumers was significantly decreased as well as the size of consumers’ packaging of spirit that is not subject to marking by a check band. Cameras were further introduced in the premises where spirit is labelled as well as new stamps which are difficult to be counterfeited or mandatory licences for all final sellers of spirit drinks.
CAFIA proceeded in accordance to “Crisis Handbook“ in the time of the crisis. Within this serious extraordinary situation, higher attention was paid do inspections of small retails, intensive inspections were carried out also during weekends and holidays. All CAFIA Inspectorates employed all inspectors to carry out inspections of spirit drinks. Samples were taken from each suspicious lot of spirit drinks. During the whole affair, CAFIA carried out approximately 41,000 inspections and took almost 1,500 samples.
However, consumers should still be careful. The option that further contaminated spirit drinks could still be somewhere in storages could not be excluded. We recommend consumers they purchase spirit drinks in retails, not on the market halls or stalls. Also spirit drinks with damaged stamps or without a stamp, spirit drinks without a lot or very cheap ones are suspicious. It is better to buy spirit drinks on which composition and producer or supplier are specified.

Melamine in dairy products from China

In autumn 2008 the world was shook by the melamine affair – melamine was found in Chinese milk. It was discovered that Chinese farmers and Chinese and processing companies had been adding melamine to milk diluted with water to cover up insufficient content of proteins. At first, the problem only concerned milk powder for infant formulae. Certain sources claim that up to three hundred Chinese children had health problems after consuming this milk, six of them allegedly died. However, subsequently authorities from neighboring countries started reporting other contaminated dairy products as well as products including milk as only one of many ingredients.    
Dairy products from China were not imported into the EU but the European Commission immediately initiated strict inspections of risk Chinese foodstuffs on the borders regardless and imposed import ban on all Chinese formulae and weaning foods for infants and children younger than three years. In the consequence of intensified inspections, several cases of contaminated foods were detected on the European market, in particular confectionery. However, none of them represented an urgent health risk for the consumer because the content of melamine in these foods was multiple times lower than in the case of the Chinese contaminated milk.

Sudan I – IV, Rhodamine B, Orange II, Para red, Bixin coloring agents

Synthetic coloring agents Sudan I-IV were classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogens. Rhodamine B, Orange II, Para red are also considered as potentially carcinogenic and for this reason they have been banned from use in the EU for coloring since 1995. Bixin natural coloring agent is authorized only for coloring of certain foodstuffs. However, there still may be cases when some individual producers or merchants in third countries, in particular from Asia, add these coloring agents to chili, curry, curcuma or palm oil to achieve higher color intensity and thus fake higher quality of their goods. During subsequent further processing the banned coloring agents then get mixed into mixed condiments, dressings or ketchups. 

Food supplements with pharmacologically active substances

Czech Republic has repeatedly registered occurrence of food supplements designed for athletes, eventually supplements for supporting potency containing pharmacologically active substances such as sildenafil, tadalafil or anabolic steroids. These substances may only be a part of medications that are prescription-only due to their adverse side effects. The stated supplements promised miraculous effects but the content of dangerous substances was concealed to the customers.

Manipulation with expiry date of foodstuffs

In the past years complaints about repacking expired meat and dairy products in shops were registered. Some cases were even brought before courts, however, it was never possible to prove that a criminal offense had been committed. Even nowadays, inspectors face situations when expiry date of a product is rewritten or pasted over with a new date. In other cases, expiry dates are pasted over with a discount sticker. Expired products may not always pose a health risk but they may cause health problems.  

Examples of food frauds where health is not at risk 

Additionally sweetened honey

Honey is a completely natural food, it is not allowed to add any additives to it and dilute it in any way, for example by adding sugars or sugar solutions. Nevertheless, analytical methods are evolving every day and today we can prove that sugar was additionally added to honey thanks to laboratory tests. Inspections discovered adulterated honey in the past.

Diluted Burčák (half-fermented wine)

Burčák is one of Czech specialties. Wine law precisely defines the period when Burčák can be sold, how much alcohol it must contain and that it may be produced only from domestic grapevine. At the same time it is forbidden to dilute this fermented beverage with water. Such actions are considered as misleading consumers. Inspection has inspected the sale of Burčák for many years and it has regularly managed to get hold of a number of samples where addition of water was labotary proved.

Adulterate wine

CAFIA regularly checks whether unauthorised oenological procedures or other fraudulent practices were used during production and placing wine on the market. Parameters for detection of wine adulteration are following: detection of synthetic colours, non-specified anthocyanes, addition of water, origin of ethanol, ethanol originating from added sugar, addition of saccharose, maltose, geographical origin of grapes used for wine production, addition of synthetic glycerol, citric acid and sweeteners. Taste and aroma that do not comply with the wines made from grape wine are further parameters. As regards labelling, also accompanying documents are newly assessed.

Jams with lower fruit shares

Jams are also regulated by precise quality requirements. Minimum weight shares of fruit that producers must adhere to are prescribed for standard jam as well as extra jam. Products that do not meet this minimum weight share and even products where a part of this share consists of other, cheaper fruits, are discovered regularly every year. Strawberry jam, where apple component is partially substituted by apples, can be an example.      

Misleading offer and misleading labelling

Many types of foodstuffs can be substituted by cheaper substitutes. Selling these substitutes is legal only when they are duly labelled and a consumer can discover it is a substitute. In most cases producers label their foodstuffs correctly in this regard, it is the seller that commits an error when he offers the substitute in a misleading way. Sale of cocoa delicacy that is presented on shelf label as chocolate, sale of dairy products with vegetable oils that are offered as cheeses, or sparkling beverages that are not sold separately from sparkling wines are an example of this. Legal regulations fairly strictly stipulate what data must be provided on a foodstuff wrapping. Of course, these data must be undistorted and true. However, producers sometimes mislead when, for example, they imply a certain origin on a product but this origin does not correspond to reality. For example, Prosciutto made in Germany, Swiss cheese from Poland etc. Foodstuffs declaring content of a certain quantity of nutrients, higher shares of certain ingredients or, on the contrary, absence of certain others (sugar free, fat free) despite the fact these data do not correspond to factual composition of such food are another form of misleading labelling.  

How to defend against misleading practices and adulterated foodstuffs

  • Pay attention to foodstuff composition and country of origin.
  • Always check expiry date and minimum durability date.
  • When shopping do not follow only shelf labels or discount posters.
  • Do not believe miraculous health effects declared on food supplements or in advertising.
  • Do not rely on food supplements when you have health problems, see a doctor.
  • Be careful when buying food on the internet. For shopping use only certified internet shops, or e-shops that have also brick and mortar stores. 
  • Be careful when buying food offered at a significant discount or food offered to you as a good bargain. This applies particularly to sale of foodstuffs or supplements at presentation events.
  • Notice how foodstuffs are stored in a store, whether used refrigeration and freezing devices are functional. Do not buy frozen foodstuffs with precipitated ice on their wrappings as it can be a sign that the foodstuff has already been defrosted.
  • Never buy a foodstuff with damaged or contaminated wrapping.
  • Do not buy foodstuffs of unknown or suspicious origin, such as spirits without duty stamps, unlabelled foodstuffs, foodstuffs labelled in a language other than Czech and foodstuffs from stands where the stand operator is not visibly indicated.   
  • Carefully inspect dairy, meat and delicatessen products you wish to buy. If they show sensory changes, for example changes in color, consistency, or smell, do not buy them.
  • If you have any questions contact SZPI using the following address infozavinac.gifszpi.gov.cz.
  • You can also contact SZPI using a web form on the web pages www.szpi.gov.cz.
 

Misleading practices inspections

Consumers themselves may discover eventual misleading practices in many ways, however, in majority of cases it is not in their powers to detect a fraud. These case are the focus of supervisory bodies. Unannounced inspections are carried out at merchants, importers as well as producers for these purposes. Samples are taken during these inspections and taken to laboratories where it is verified if consumers were truly mislead; many samples are subject to destructive evaluation directly on the site of the inspection. If a deficiency is discovered, deficient foodstuff batches are banned and an order to withdraw them from business network is given. If these cases are serious, authorities inform the public through media so that the consumers who have already bought such a foodstuff may request refund or to avoid buying goods from this producers in the future. Administrative proceedings resulting in a fine are then instituted against each offender. In case of misleading a consumer these fines are usually very high irrespective of the fact that the operator incurs serious damage because it cannot continue selling its goods. Everyone that commits such a fraud can be sure that inspection bodies will visit the offender time and time again unless its goods are put in order.  

Where to go for help

Several inspection organizations supervise food quality and safety within the Czech Republic and each one of them has a certain range of competence and powers.

Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority

The main inspection activities of CAFIA are focused on inspecting foodstuffs and ingredients used for production of foodstuffs, in particular of vegetable origin, and also on distribution chains. The main activities include checking wholesomeness of foodstuffs, foodstuff quality and labelling, checking compliance with obligations within foodstuff production and putting foodstuffs into circulation, checking content of foreign substances in ingredients and foodstuffs and checking that foodstuffs are unadulterated and consumers are not mislead. 
www.szpi.gov.cz

State Veterinary Administration

The goal of SVA is to protect consumers against products potentially harmful to health which are of animal origin, monitor and maintain positive animal infection situation, veterinary protection of the territory of the Czech Republic, protection of animal welfare and protection against animal cruelty. SVA supervises in butcheries and commercial chains in sectors where meat, poultry, fish or eggs and milk is prepared.    
www.svscr.cz

Czech Trade Inspection Authority

Czech Trade Inspection Authority checks compliance with the conditions set for ensuring quality of goods or products including their wholesomeness, conditions of storage and transport. The stated competencies do not apply to foodstuffs, tobacco products and foods. CTIA also inspect compliance with conditions and quality of provided services. You can apply to CTIA if you have a complaint regarding claim settlement procedure.
www.coi.cz

State Institute for Drug Control

STDC is competent in all matters of supervision over production, import and sale of medicine and medicinal products. It controls and penalizes sale of counterfeit medicine.
www.sukl.cz

Public health authorities

Hygienic stations protect public health and they directly report to the Ministry of Health. These authorities supervise in entire scope the compliance with obligations and health requirements in particular in factories, establishments and facilities of public catering as well as provision of catering services (e.g. in restaurants, hotels, fast foods, school canteens etc.). You can apply to hygienic stations in case of a suspecteddamage to health after ingested foodstuff.  
www.mzcr.cz

Territorially responsible trade licensing authorities

Trade licensing authorities supervise in particular the compliance with requirements on identification of a seller and the compliance with prohibition on misleading advertising except for radio and television broadcasting and other specific cases. Trade licensing authorities observe if and how the obligations stipulated by the trade licensing act and provisions of special legal regulations related to trade licensing are complied with.
www.mpo.cz

Project information

A six-month project called “Food frauds – deepening knowledge of food adulteration” was implemented within the “Transition Facility” European programme for supporting qualification of the national inspection authority employees – Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority – based on the agreement between the Czech Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. The project carrier on the German part was the Federal Ministry for Nutrition, Agriculture and Consumer Protection in Bonn, organizational and financial management was executed by B. & S.U. Beratungs-und Service-Gesellschaft Umwelt mbH, Berlin.
Within the project Czech and German experts discussed official inspections of foodstuffs and also various possibilities of food frauds, consumer misleading and also possibilities of exposing and prosecuting such unlawful conduct. For this purpose, theoretical seminars covering currently valid regulations of the European Union as well as national law issues, were held. These seminars were also held in Brno, practical training courses for special analytical methods were provided in Prague. Exchange of opinions between the Czech and German experts was possible thanks to two study visits of the Czech experts to German research institutes (Würzburg) and national supervisory authorities (Berlin). The participants positively evaluated individual seminars and thus clearly showed that the discussed topics and presentations had been suitably selected for application in everyday practice.