Food fraud costs Australia billions and can cost lives

‘Food fraud’ is a phrase you probably rarely come across, but it’s a worryingly common occurrence in Australia. In fact, it is so widespread that according to at least one report, it costs the economy a staggering $3 billion every year.

In addition to the financial cost, the practice can damage consumer trust and, in serious cases, there are health risks.

Spotting food fraud is no easy task either, but veal, wine, fish and molluscs have been identified as high-risk categories, collectively accounting for an economic cost of between $700 million and $1.3 billion annually.

The food and beverage supply chain is becoming increasingly globalised and environmental factors are placing pressure on the availability of raw ingredients. These factors combined create multiple opportunities to commit food fraud and make it difficult to track.

Associate Professor Julian Cox, a food microbiologist from the University of NSW school of chemical engineering, says you can pick almost any commodity, any food or beverage, and you can almost guarantee that products within that category have been tampered with somewhere along the supply chain – even if it’s in the labelling and claiming to be from a specific region of the world.

What exactly is food fraud and how does it affect you?

A University of NSW report outlines six categories of food fraud: mislabelling, adulteration, substitution, counterfeiting, dilution and concealment. They are derived from an original report produced in 2021 by research and development corporation AgriFutures Australia.

Mislabelling: The scope of mislabelling is wide, but in each case involves a misrepresentation of one or more product facts. Quality, quantity, safety, species and geographic origin are examples, as is claiming a product to be organic when it is not.

Adulteration: This is the practice of adding an undeclared ingredient to a product to lower production costs or fake its quality. One infamous example was melamine added to baby formula to increase its apparent protein content. The fraud occurred in China in 2008 and led to kidney stones and even kidney damage in infants. This is a clear example of food fraud with serious health consequences.

Substitution: As the name implies, this is the substitution of an expensive ingredient with one of lower value. The aim is, of course, to cut production costs. Examples include replacing honey with sugar syrup, or extra virgin olive oil with a lower value oil.

Fact or fake?

Counterfeiting: This is the simple practice of copying a known brand’s name and packaging and presenting it as a legitimate product. One common non-food fraud example was the practice of producing bootleg cassettes of big musical acts. Back in the 1980s, Australians returning from an Asian holiday would often bring some of these tapes with them. While the sound quality was sometimes a giveaway of their ‘fakeness’, it was more often the printed lyrics. In many cases these were transcribed by a listener for whom clearly English was a second language!

Dilution: The common phrase, “Just add water”, should not extend to the production process for fraudulent purposes, but it sometimes does. Milk, wine and fruit juice are all known to have had their quality compromised by dilution.

Concealment: This is often similar to mislabelling but occurs during the marketing process. For example, presenting non-halal products as halal or, as in the example above, non-organic products as organic.

What’s the solution?

Across those six types of food fraud, the effects can vary from being relatively harmless to having devastating health and/or financial consequences. The 2008 Chinese milk scandal led to the death of six infants after they developed kidney stones.

The fact that there are six broad methods of food fraud make dealing with the practice challenging. However, AgriFuture has put forward a number of solutions: “A broad range of technologies are available, including high-performance liquid chromatography, DNA sequencing and barcoding, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays.”

Such solutions sound great, but implementing them is not always easy. On a very local scale, they may be impractical if not impossible.

Assoc. Prof. Cox sums up the challenge with a familiar example: “Unless you’re a true expert in that area, you’re probably not going to tell if the local fish and chip shop has sold you barramundi or if they’ve just sold you battered shark meat.”

Guarding against food fraud sometimes simply comes down to a matter of trust.

Do you think you might have been a victim of food fraud at some stage? How did it occur? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Australia’s deadliest fast food meals revealed

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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