In 2008 in China, melamine was illegally added to some powdered milk and related dairy products including infant formula.
Melamine is an industrial chemical used mainly in the production of plastics, primarily for counter tops, utensils, fabric, adhesives and flame retardants.
And why was melamine added to the milk and infant formula? To increase the nitrogen content of the milk and therefore its apparent protein content! Water had been added to the raw milk to increase the volume but this resulted in diluting the milk, leaving it with a lower protein concentration.
This issue resulted in serious public health consequences. Up until then, melamine was not considered a potential contaminant or adulterant in the food supply chain and hence not included in routine quality control analysis. The perpetrators took advantage of a loophole for economic gain at the expense of public health!
In 2013 in Europe, food advertised as beef was found to contain horse meat. The issue came to light when horse DNA was discovered in frozen beef burgers sold in several Irish and British supermarkets.
The scandal made headlines across Europe and beyond. That horse meat was being passed off as beef exposed the complex nature of the global food supply chain. The evidence gathered did not point to a food safety or public health problem. Rather, it was an issue of fraudulent labelling – in this case taking advantage of weaknesses in the system to the detriment of legitimate businesses and consumers.
And only a few days ago, Malta was reported to be at the centre of organic food fraud (MaltaToday.com.mt, May 8). In this case, thousands of tonnes of conventional wheat, corn, soybeans and other grains intended for processing and food for humans and domestic animals were being imported from non-EU countries and exported to Italy as organic or biological products. Food fraud is increasingly becoming a global threat. While food adulteration has always existed, the scale and geographical coverage was small.
Now, with the food supply chain being long, complicated and accelerated, the risk of food fraud has broadened to include entire global populations.
In the past, it was more prevalent in alcoholic items like champagne or whisky but today it also involves everyday consumer items. A report in the Financial Times in March quoted numerous cases of food fraud involving daily consumable items like tomato juice, orange juice, frozen fish, spices and many more. In fact, experts say any food ingredient has the potential to be vulnerable to fraud.
Europe, Britain and the United States have moved to tackle this issue since the horse meat scandal. In the UK, the Institute for Global Food Security was set up at Queens University, Belfast. Equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, the institute is spearheading the battle against food crime.
In Europe, the EU Food Fraud Network allows swift and efficient cooperation in cases of cross border violations. In the US, the US Pharmacopeial Convention has set up a food fraud database to help identify problematic food ingredients and catalogue detection methods. This information can be used by parties responsible for assessing existing and emerging risks and trends for food fraud.
This brings us to the home front. Where do we stand in the realm of food fraud? We don’t have any controls on food imports. There is no system or mechanism in place to detect the authenticity of imported food. Granted we don’t have the resources nor the expertise that the US, Britain or the European Union (EU) have but we cannot afford to be complacent about an issue that is emerging as a global threat. We can’t wait till a melamine or horse meat issue occurs before taking action.
The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) urges the Health Ministry to take the lead on this matter and put together a high-level inter-disciplinary task force on food fraud whose mandate would be to put together a framework based on initiatives that are already on-going on the global front.
One of the key roles of this task force would be to assess the loopholes in the current food importing system and subsequently plugging them.
Letter to the press, 18 May 2016