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How food fraud endangers public health

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Mthokozisi Nkosi is the CEO of ASC Consultants which specialises in food safety and public health. He is also a city councillor in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

Food fraud can range from tea bags being mixed with cheap herbs or even grass, diluted liquids such as lemon juice falsely sold as 100% pure, the selling of expired goods and mislabelling and misrepresentation of ingredients. Food fraud is not easy to detect and not everyone can determine if a particular food has been compromised.

Over the years there has been a gradual increase in reported food fraud cases throughout the world and, to a lesser extent, in South Africa. The Food Fraud Initiative of Michigan State University defines food fraud as the deliberate addition, concealment, substitution, dilution and mislabelling of food and food products to increase the economic value of food or food products. 

One normally witnesses food fraud when a company is undergoing economic difficulties or when there is a lack of ethical leadership and functional quality assurance in a company. Food fraud normally occurs through an attempt to replace a more expensive food or food product with a cheaper alternative.

This robs consumers of their hard-earned income and, at worst, may be detrimental to their health. Highly sophisticated methods are deployed by companies to achieve this deception.

As the economic standing of most businesses is still to worsen because of declining economic activity, the food industry is unlikely to be spared in this. Many food businesses have seen their sales drop to below 50% of their normal output, with the notable exception of the citrus fruit industry, which largely exports its products. 

Some businesses would then consider different ways to survive and, out of desperation, may employ creative methods to generate profit. These may include reducing the cost of production by removing an expensive ingredient or diluting a key constituent of the food product. This then assists in reducing the cost of inputs, thereby maximising the economic value of the food or food product.

South Africa is part of the international economy and global trade: as such, an increase in food fraud cases globally should not be seen as an exception, but more as something that could indeed be taking place locally, if it is not already happening.

Examples of food fraud can range from tea bags being mixed with cheap herbs or even grass, diluted liquids such as lemon juice falsely sold as 100% lemon juice, the selling of expired goods and mislabelling and misrepresentation of ingredients. However, food fraud is not easy to detect and not everyone can determine if a particular food has been compromised.

One notable example is the dilution of milk with melamine, a nitrogen-based chemical compound normally used to produce plastic products. In widely reported cases, melamine has been added to milk diluted with water to increase its apparent protein content. One recorded incident that attracted international news coverage occurred in China with infant formula and resulted in the death of six toddlers, while thousands more were affected, some of whom suffered permanent kidney damage.

Another detected food fraud incident was the use by a Vietnam-based business of black manganese dioxide powder to increase the weight of black pepper. These toxic substances were used without considering their impact on human health. The sophistication of the methods that these companies used to manipulate these products could not be detected by an average consumer.

Such incidents, although rarely reported, may have dire consequences for the public health system if not controlled. It should also concern South Africans – Statistics SA estimates that roughly 45% of our food imports come from Asia. It does not mean that other countries are not affected; many cases have been reported in the US as well as the rest of Europe.

As consumers, it is crucial that we guard against businesses whose ethical conduct is under question. Furthermore, most food businesses in South Africa are required by law to have functioning food safety management systems that are designed to assure consumers that products being sold to them are safe and meet the necessary quality standards. If a food business does not have this in place, consumers should immediately question the quality of their goods.

The bare minimum that a food business should have is a Certificate of Acceptability issued under Regulation R638: 2018, which is related to the Regulations Governing General Hygiene Requirements for Food Premises, the Transport of Food and Related Matters.

This regulation is enforced by environmental health practitioners working in a local municipality. Unfortunately, due to the dysfunctionality of our municipalities in South Africa, these regulations are poorly enforced and many food businesses are simply not compliant. 

Furthermore, environmental health practitioners normally visit these facilities only when they issue these certificates and there are no follow-up visits – sometimes you will find that a food business was last visited 15 years ago. 

The exception is the processed meat industry which, according to new regulations, will now be inspected annually after the introduction of the Compulsory Specification for Processed Meat Products (VC 9100) in 2019. This is critical if you consider the effect that listeriosis contamination had on meat products in the country. Even then, the competence of environmental health practitioners is often under question.

Businesses should also be compelled through the regulations to implement food fraud prevention and mitigation strategies to prevent food fraud incidents from occurring. This is already being considered in many countries, with the US leading the way. 

Implementing food fraud prevention and mitigation strategies discourages everyone in the value chain from illegal activity, because if the prevention strategy is effective, it is likely to detect any fraudulent practice in the chain. 

Although the “Regulations: Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs R146” and its associated amendments do refer to labelling, they do not go far enough. Public health should also be considered when fraud in the food and beverage industry is discussed.

Food fraud incidents may not only affect the health of consumers, but may irreversibly damage a business’s brand and reputation which could result in the business being closed, contributing to the high unemployment rate.

As consumers, it is our duty to demand the best from food producers to stop these food fraud incidents. 

They not only rob us of our hard-earned income, but could ruin our health as well as that of our loved ones. It is important that we rise to the occasion when our health and livelihoods are at stake. DM

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  • One recent example comes to mind – the adulteration of honey with glucose syrup by a local company. The company was unable to explain regular deliveries by a large tanker truck from Huletts, if memory serves me well.

  • Great article. Unfortunately the barrier to entry into the food industry is exceptionally low, and many products on the shelf only there because of someone with good marketing skills and no fundamental understanding of the requirements of manufacturing safe, quality foods. Giving the rest of the industry a bad reputation. Formal Retail good at sifting out these scam artists most of the time. SA’s own npo for food scientists and technologists (SAAFoST) is a great source for reliable info and have a consumer advisory committee to facilitate consumer questions.

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