In 2013, scandal rocked the European food industry after equine DNA was found in (allegedly) beef burgers produced in Ireland. The discovery caused a domino effect of revelations across the continent, exposing that horse and other animal meat was being used as filler — or an entire substitute — for frozen beef burgers sold to supermarkets. Products were recalled and arrests were made, but the economic effects were extensive and the public’s trust in food producers was irrevocably shaken.
Though Horsegate, as the scandal came to be known, was not the first nor the last major food fraud incident, it was the most public in recent years. Since then, members of the food industry and the public alike have been wary of what goes into food. Academics and industry experts are gathering in Manchester, England, for the Food Fraud 2017 conference next month to discuss some of the biggest concerns food producers and consumers face.
“There is no reason the food industry should be less susceptible to fraud than other industries,” said John Point, a planned speaker at the conference, in an article. “It’s a fair assumption that fraud is significant.”
There are many reasons why food fraud is a problem. Below is a breakdown of what some of these reasons are.
Health problems: Though Horsegate itself presented little risk to public health, as horse meat is normally safe to consume, there can be dangers when consuming the wrong horse meat. Horses that have been treated with the analgesic phenylbutazone are not deemed safe for human consumption. Horse meat containing the drug never showed up during Horsegate, however, the risk was present nonetheless.
In other cases, unlabeled allergens may slip into a product, either intentionally or unintentionally. Products may also be contaminated with unlabeled toxic ingredients, like in 2003 when Chinese star anise was swapped out for Japanese star anise, which contains a neurotoxin, in teas.
Food fraud can be more than adulteration, as well. Sometimes inspection results, expiration dates and transportation records can be falsified. All of these can lead to dangerous misinformation about the condition of the food product.
Ethical problems: Most people would argue that they have the right to know what they consume. Many people make dietary decisions based on personal beliefs. Muslim and Jewish people frequently avoid the consumption of pork due to religious principles. Similarly, a Hindu person might choose to avoid eating beef.
Even outside of religion, certain cultures are uncomfortable eating certain animals. Horse and dog meat, for example, are rarely eaten in Western society because of social attachments to these animals. When unlabeled meat is passed off as something else, people can unknowingly break strongly-held convictions.
Economic problems: Food fraud has high costs, though the covert nature of the crime makes it hard to detect exactly how much damage is done. The Grocery Manufacturers Association reports that food fraud costs the global food industry $10 to $15 billion annually. Fraudsters make away with millions in illegal profits, while businesses suffer through the impact of product recalls, which can result in direct profit loss as well as a loss over time resulting from a loss of consumer trust.