Sunday 9 October 2016

Food fraud

As an avid reader of social media, I have recently become very aware of the amount of discussion taking place about Food Fraud. What is meant by this is pretending that a food item is something that it isn't. The most common example of this calling the soft white substance used on pizzas "cheese", whereas it is frequently made not from milk, but from coconut oil! Likewise, "ham" (which ought to come from a pig's leg) is often made from cheaper meat such as turkey.

I read yesterday about a food festival in Japan which was supposed to showcase the food of Hokkaido, yet much of the food was found to be not from Hokkaido. The hotel hosting the festival had been unable to source sufficient local ingredients and had bought cheaper imported ones and just pretended they were the real thing. Presumably they thought the customers would not notice. Fortunately they were found out and shamed.

My feeling is that this sort of thing is much more common than most people think. How often do you see on a restaurant menu the term "home-made", when the food provided is blatantly NOT home-made? What about the term "local", when applied to food? Does that mean it has been sourced within a 10-mile radius, or 100 miles, or 1000 miles? There isn't any clarity on such things. Do you think people generally are taken in by such words? Do they even read them, and if they do, do they believe them?

A real home-made pork pie!

Here in the UK I think we have two sorts of people, where food is concerned: the ones who care about the quality and provenance of their food, and the ones who don't. Unfortunately the latter outnumber the former by a ratio of at least 3 to 1 (probably greater). The economic climate is partially to blame for this. Apart from a tiny, privileged, so-called "elite" at the top, most people these days have much less disposable income than before, and are therefore often on the look out for cheaper food. Cheaper food is not necessarily a good thing though. Even if we leave aside the ethics of its production (which is a huge subject in itself), cheaper food is often nutritionally much less good. I read the other day about the Omega 3 content of salmon having declined 30% in the last 10 years, as a result of this fish being artificially farmed rather than caught out in the open ocean. I also note that farmed salmon is typically fed on cheap low-grade fishmeal produced in West Africa (thereby starving the local people of a fair proportion of their traditional food supply - and making what they can get much more expensive than hitherto). Producing vast quantities of cheap food and shipping it halfway round the world sounds like a poor, and short-term, option. Why not eat less but better, and genuinely locally-produced food?

The discerning food-consumer looks out for food whose origins they know or can easily check - like their local farmers. There is a craze building for "raw" (i.e. unprocessed) milk, sold at the gate of the farm where it was produced. The craze is small at present, but could get big quickly. I personally don't like milk (something about having been forced to drink it as a child at school in Devon, where milk is usually very rich), but I have seen lots of people who do like milk saying that raw milk tastes really really nice. In similar fashion, Foodies look for meat whose provenance can be traced right back to the individual animal if necessary - unlike the cases you read about of horsemeat being sold as beef, and mutton being sold as goat-meat! If you are on Twitter, have a look at the account @Happerley and the hashtag #namethefarm. This movement began when a producer of the rare breed of pig called the Gloucester Old Spot realised that the amount of meat being sold as Gloucester Old Spot could not possibly have been sourced from the small amount of such pigs known to exist!

When it comes to food labelling there are also many pitfalls to be avoided. For example, meat marketed as British may have come from animals reared in Denmark, slaughtered in the Netherlands and only packaged in Britain. You do need to read the small print, and even then you sometimes have to read between the lines! It comes down to "Who do you trust?". Do you trust a big multinational corporation like a supermarket? Do you think they have your best interests at heart, or are they just interested in reducing costs and maximising profits for their shareholders so that the Chief Exec can qualify for a big fat bonus? Wouldn't it be nice to know the producer of your food personally? This is one of the reasons why I like growing my own fruit, vegetables and herbs: I know where they have come from, I know what chemicals have gone onto them (or not), and I know how much it has cost me to produce them.

That's another thing - why do some people think it is OK for shops to sell things like milk, vegetables and chicken at a price which is barely above (sometimes less than) the cost of production? Well, the reason has to be that they don't understand what is involved. I think the majority of consumers don't have the first clue about how their food is produced. Maybe they should. Maybe we ought to teach children this sort of thing as part of their overall education? The trouble is, with our current obsession with Health and Safety, organising a school trip to a farm would probably be a very complicated undertaking!

Today's post has been a bit of a rant, I know, but I feel strongly about these things and I suspect that many of my readers also do, so hopefully you'll forgive me!


  1. As a diabetic, I am very careful about what I eat. I educate myself on what is healthy food and what is not, but I am appalled at the ignorance of some of my friends.
    If even a few people read your post and change their eating habits, you have done a great service for us all.

  2. This sort of thing is a bog deal over here in the states. Too many city folks know no connection between the plastic wrapped food at the store and its true origins and processes. Having grown up on a dairy farm with a grandmother who was a dietician, I've heard it all my life. Raw milk (which I grew up on) is a huge source of contention and mostly treated as poison. Our local "fancy" grocer (super-market) taps into the locally grown movement by putting the names of their suppliers and mileage from farm to store right on the front wall. In my household, just about the biggest struggle is that my husband always wants to buy the cheap ham "steaks" which are just a step above bologna with dubious origins and ingredients and I insist on buying slices with the bone still present.

  3. I was unfamiliar with the term "food fraud" but understand the concept. Here the biggest perpetrator of false information about food origins that I have come across are, unfortunately, farmers' markets.

    At this season, the Hatch green chile fraud looms large. Good story here for those unfamiliar with it: the Hatch green chile identity crisis

    1. Interesting! The Hatch chile story is a classic example of the problem.

  4. Whilst agreeing with most of what you say re food fraud, the man leading the research on salmon, Prof Tocher believes that "Farmed salmon is just about the best way of getting omega-3 in our diet. All the other fish are much lower than mid-Atlantic salmon, including wild salmon." The simple reason the amount has declined in farmed fish is that there are more fish being farmed and the amount of oil containing food has been reduced from 80 to 20% of their diet. In fact it could be argued that the fish farmers are actually being 'good' in that it has been recognised that the increase in (such as) anchovies needed to maintain such a high rate of feeding would be unsustainable.

  5. Yes, a lot of foods available in the superstores are probably sold below the cost of producing it, with milk, chickens and eggs being prime examples.

    Sadly though, in these economically restrained times people are very cost conscious and have become accustomed to cheap food. As you say, a lot of them will have no idea where it comes from, price is all.

    Despite the best efforts of celebrity chefs to persuade us otherwise, most people just can't afford the extra cost of organic or free-range produce.

    The farmers markets are a good source of locally-grown produce, but the cost of complying with regulations involved in slaughter and processing their own animals is often prohibitively expensive. Same with butter and cheese.

  6. This subject is the same for many many different products from food to mobile phones. This fraud is everywhere. Even when you pay top money you don't get quality, think of washing machines and tumble driers bursting into flames, or cars with faked emissions. Chicken that doesn't have the texture of chicken in a Chinese take away. I even saw some chicken breasts advertised as having "only 12% water" on the shelves the other day. When this happens everywhere you can't trust anything and the other day I read that most organic food comes from the same huge multinationals that make grow or sell the standard stuff - presumably from the same farms, same fields that had pesticides sprayed on them the year before. And of course you have the compost that you can't trust.

    The problem with all this lies with listed companies having to make more profit for their share holders. When they can't get more market share, when they can;t pay lower wages and when they can't make cost savings through efficiency, and when most of their services are farmed out to china or elsewhere they must use cheaper poorer components or cut corners, or simply lie to increase the profit.

    ...but I have to say the majority of people are content with how things are, or ignorant of how things are and don't want to know. Not me, I can get wound up over such things :)

  7. Top article!
    Re food education and farm visits for children, and nano dairies, check out our face book page for Incredible Farm

  8. Most people neither know or care where their food comes from, as long as it's cheap enough, this has the knock on effect of big companies getting away with food fraud. Up until a couple of years ago Whitby Prawns were marketed as 'Whitby Bay Prawns' when in fact they came from several countries. Super Markets sell produce with the label 'Joe Blogs Farms', using a name just as a marketing ploy. One of the biggest food frauds is 'Free Range Eggs' the vast majority of these birds will never have seen the light of day mainly because of flock size 30.000 birds per unit and also the way the houses are set up which does nothing to encourage a bird to go outside.
    However one of your commenters Andy is wrong when he says that fields can be spayed one year and then be used to produce Organic food the next year. To sell anything other than poultry or pork as Organic the land must undergo a three year conversion period, which means no banned substances can be used during this time. At one time some farmers going into conversion would use all manor of chemicals to aid production, then go into the three year period, after a couple of years of full Organic status revert to conventional, then again go back into the conversion period. Thankfully this loop hole has now been closed.

  9. ofA brilliant post Mark.

    We had the big shock of our local farm shop, no small enterprise but Bodnant Farms which is a big landowner and so called quality local food retailer here in North Wales, and just along the road from us. Selling freezer packs of pork and gammon on special offer and labelled as British, when in fact they had bought it in from the Netherlands (where around 95% of all pork is intensively reared) and it had been merely packaged in the UK. It caused a huge outcry and no doubt damaged their reputation considerably.

    We have to be so careful when buying food these days, and it seems that sometimes even reading the label isn't enough!! Like you we grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and have our own flock of genuine free range chickens.

  10. Great post Mark! I too like growing much of my own fruits and veggies because I know everyone 'personally', so to speak. And we try and get other fruits locally as best we can. We have a good local source for beef and pork, local in this case being less than 100 miles away. We used to have a good source for chicken but the farmer moved away.

  11. Nice rant - Historically there are no shortage of examples where people have preferred profit over honesty. It's just we can, none of us, avoid the need to eat. With current distribution systems food dishonesty can have an adverse impact on a lot of people in a very short time.

  12. I'm glad you had a rant as it is something I too care about. We are lucky to live in an area known for the quality of it's local food. We still have 2 greengrocers, 2 bakeries, 4 butchers. We do buy as much as possible from these shops. The meat and chicken may cost more but the taste is no comparison to the supermarket. We offset the cost by growing more and eating more vegetable based dishes. I'm glad I make my own pizza! Sarah x


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