SORTING THE BEEF FROM THE BULL by Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Published by Bloomsbury, 2016.
The sub-title, ‘the science of food fraud forensics ‘ is an immediate indication of the serious nature of this paperback, stated on the cover, (under a drawing of a horse, complete with outlines of cuts of horsemeat!)
However, thanks to witty chapter headings and lots of play on words, the text is very readable. The reader is drawn into a fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally depressing series of culinary operations that range from cheating to really sinister practices.
Misrepresentation or false statements on packaging are acts of fraud that cheat consumers while legitimate producers are being cheated out of business. Examples include eggs labelled ‘free-range’, fresh produce labelled ‘organic ‘and salmon as ‘wild-caught’. USA pomegranate juice labelled as 100% was found to contain little or no pomegranate, consisting rather of corn syrup and other fruit juices.
Food fraud becomes food crime when networks of perpetrators are involved. They consist of the fraud inventor, the one who devises how to cheat, those who deal with transporting the goods across borders and countries, those who develop ways of avoiding detection in laboratory testing and auditing, and finally those who threaten the vulnerable in the industry to turn a blind eye to the practices.
One chapter focuses on egg production – an ingredient essential to western breakfasts and in hundreds of recipes. Apparently it’s neither difficult nor expensive to produce hen’s “eggs” from a series of chemicals that include sodium alginate, gelatin, sodium benzoate, colouring (for the yolk) and melted paraffin wax and gypsum powder (to create the shell). Fake eggs appeared in China in the mid-1990s and were cooked and eaten, they were so authentic looking. The health consequences of this are unclear as most of the ingredients are already used in food products, albeit in smaller quantities.
The authors realised, after initial research, that food fraud is truly an enormous topic. They devote a chapter to how scientists tackle the subject of finding evidence , complex in a globalised industry where ready-to-eat meals are processed to the point that nothing resembles the living things that once grew. How to develop tests to confirm or authenticate that truth of what labels tell us becomes a real challenge. As they develop ways of detecting corn syrup disguised as honey, the fraudsters find a new type of syrup that will escape detection.
Vegetable oil endures a long history of adulteration and continues to present challenges – cheap oil frequently added to expensive oil, while swindles has caused hundreds of deaths in Spain and shaken the US economy.
Mislabelling of seafood is a major occurrence, one to which the UK government is giving attention. Then there is the emotive issue of horse and other meats being included in burgers, curries, kebabs and chicken breasts. Many so-called all- beef sausages are anything but beef, and ham and chicken contain much water. And vegetarians are not immune as the authors uncover cases of meat adulterating spices and of blood products making their way into baked goods…
Corruption in dairy products ranges from an extreme – fake milk made of urea and shampoo in India – to replacing animal-based fats with vegetable-based products . Only the major health scandals make the headlines, such as the 300 000 Chinese children who fell ill (six of whom died) in the 2008 discovery of melamine in milk.
The wine industry is described as one where the greatest economic gains can be made by falsifying. This in a market rife with scandals, where the criminals are “often as wealthy as their victims and …have the refined palates… that enable them to carry off such scams”. And don’t think that spirits like vodka and whisky are left out, as they are quite easy to adulterate, say the authors.
The spice story is another tale liable to cause some nausea. Suffice it to say, we need to check the source of our peppercorns. We should buy whole spices rather than ground to ensure that they do not contain additives (which can, apparently) include dust, rodent hairs and insect fragments. Cayenne pepper has been found to contain ground rice, mustard seed, sawdust, brick dust and salt, and can be coloured with red lead oxide (which can lead to lead poisoning.) The turmeric story is equally depressing – and ironic – given that many health nuts are hailing this as a wonder food.
Even fresh fruit and vegetables do not escape fraudulence – mangoes a sprayed with formalin (from Bangladesh)and other methods to keep items looking fresh well beyond their real age, are grey areas that may not be illegal but certainly are deceitful. And could even be deadly.
Looking to the future, its likely that food fraud will increase: climate change will increase the prevalence of livestock diseases and affect crop yields, tempting more people toward dishonest practices. As Prof Chris Elliott of Belfast University remarks in the foreword – “A number of food-business operators …have told me their biggest dilemma is to decide if they should cheat in the same way as their competitors, or go out of business”
The authors discuss actions we, the consumers, can take: Be informed readers, (you could be, thanks to this book), so we are better equipped to detect and avoid food fraud. Be careful of unrealistic prices or bargains. Buy from people you trust. Other measures, like eating seasonally, can help. In some northern countries, governments are taking inspections seriously, with Denmark forming a Food Flying Squad whose inspectors arrive by helicopter unannounced, and inspect with a no closed doors policy (if keys are “lost” they call a locksmith immediately). Media have an important role to play as well, exposing fraud in industry and pressurising governments to act.
The British authors have, naturally, focussed on food and beverages in the United Kingdom. Local investigation? It's definitely needed. I don’t have the stomach (sorry!) for it, but perhaps some energetic food bloggers could mount a joint project.