The next food fraud? Worse than the ”Horsegate”

If the explosion of the infamous “Horsemeat Scandal” was greeted at first with disbelief and barely concealed laughter from the public and media, the following concern for a public health risk revealed itself in a short time as completely not founded. None of these two reactions seem to be triggered by what could be the next food fraud scandal on a global scale.

The affected product, in this case, are spices (especially cumin, paprika and various mix) which, at a level not yet identified of the supply chain, have been adulterated with crushed almond shells, with the clear aim  of financial gain. The real risk – and what distinguishes this case from ”Horsegate” – is that such conduct poses a serious risk to the health of allergic consumers. Almond nuts

The tree nuts category, indeed, is one of the allergens that more easily could cause violent anaphylactic shock; the risk is more than real, since the analytical detection of almond’s traces (probably remained caked on the shells) was the cause of dozens of recalls and withdrawals from the market started in UK, US, Canada and several other European countries.

Although the intent of the contamination has not yet been demonstrated, it is clear that such a wide spread of withdrawals and recalls worldwide, as well as the involvement in the issue of many different brands on the market (even global retailers such as Morrisons and Sainsbury’s) and the different types product, clearly suggest a deliberate fraud.

Spices have quite high prices, which allow good profit margins through this kind of adulteration: in addition, not always the systems of internal traceability of the small and medium-size companies are adequate to the high complexity required by management of these raw materials and their mix. Finally, as highlighted by Prof. Chris Elliot in some recent interviews, the last season saw in Gujarat (India) a cumin harvest absolutely disastrous because of the weather, and this caused a spike in prices.

Although a British company, Bart Ingredients, has challenged the analytical methods used by the British “Food Standards Agency” (FSA), advancing the hypothesis of “false positives” attributed to another ingredient (the “Mahaleb”, extracted from a variety of cherry tree), the chances that this is proved true for all cases found seems utterly unrealistic.

UK, was the European country most affected by the phenomenon. Here the cumin’s consumption as a flavor enhancer in soups and processed products, and also in combination with other spices such as paprika, chili and curry, is very high. The extent of the contamination, however, is not yet fully established. At the moment there have been no reports of deaths or hospitalizations due to the issue, but unfortunately could only be a matter of time. The spices are used in many processed and prepacked foods and it will be very difficult to detect all the products contaminated and to remove them all from the shelves (e.g. the first recalls involved kit for fajitas in British supermarket).

This will be the first “stress test” for the newborn FSA “Food Crime United” and the UK food safety system as a whole, after its reorganization following the “Elliot Review”. Important signals, however, should also be sent by the European Commission, now engaged with the revision of Reg. (EC) n. 882/2004 and with the implementation of appropriate measures to fight frauds.

Thank God it’s Friday! Quick news from the food world (Week 45)

Here’s my article selection of the week:

EU

– Environment Committee backs flexibility for EU countries to ban GMO crops, from European Parliament ENVI Committee: long-awaited draft plans to allow EU member states to restrict, or ban, the cultivation of crops containing genetically modified organisms on their own territory even if it is allowed at EU level won the support of the Environment Committee on Tuesday. MEPs voted to remove the Council-backed idea of a phase of negotiations with the GMO company, and supported plans to allow member states to ban GMO crops on environmental grounds.

– Italy cracks whip on health claim abusers – fines could reach €5m, by Shane Starling+, on Nutraingredients: regulators in Italy’s €1.2bn food supplements market are cracking the harshest whips against health claims abusers in the EU – a firm was recently fined €250,000 – but will the wounds be deep enough to change the market?

 Fears that German avian flu outbreak could spread, by Ed Bedington, on Globalmeatnews.com: animal health experts are continuing to monitor the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8 in Germany as the yearly migration of wild birds continues to cause concerns the condition might spread.

CHINA

– China Health Food: New Regulations on Nutritional Supplements, by Rachel Shen, on Chemlinked.com: on Nov. 5, 2014, CFDA released the draft of Administrative Provisions on Nutritional Supplements and Requirements on Dossiers for Nutritional Supplements, which gives detailed instructions on regulatory requirements for nutritional supplements in China. The period for public consultation is until Nov. 30, 2014.

NUTRITION

– Mediterranean diet has ‘lasting’ health benefits, say researchers, by Nathan Gray+, on Nutraingredients.com: the health benefits of switching to a Mediterranean style diet and upping the amount of time spent exercising for a period of just eight weeks can still be seen a year after stopping the regime, according to a new study.

USA

– Food Fraud: Money Scam and Health Hazard, by Beth Krietsch, on Foodsafetynews: despite the common belief that food fraud in the United States is a rarity, the globalized nature of our food supply chain means many of our favorite foods and ingredients travel far and wide before they reach our plates, making adulteration and other types of food fraud a considerate problem here as well.

– New App Shows Health Inspection Records for Nearby Restaurants, by James Andrews, on Foodsafetynews.com.

– Revised FSMA Provisions Need More Tweaks, by Lydia Zuraw, on Foodsafetynews.com: the public is generally pleased with the revised provisions of four rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), but the public comments at the Food and Drug Administration’s public meeting Thursday suggest that the agency may have more tweaking to do.

– Unilever: “Just Mayo” Misleads Consumers Because It’s Not “Mayo”, by David Ter Molen, on FoodIdentityblog.com: on October 31, 2014, Unilever filed suit in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey against Hampton Creek, Inc. for false advertising and unfair competition for selling an egg-free spread under the brand name “Just Mayo.” According to Unilever, the lack of any eggs in the product precludes it from being labeled as “mayonnaise” under federal regulations and consumers are further misled in this regard by the egg on the product label.