Food fraud is everywhere, and it seems that many consumers are aware of it. Dalhousie University recently released a study on the topic produced by a team I led, and the results were surprising. Food fraud can take many forms, such as adulteration, substituting one ingredient with a much cheaper one, and misrepresentation, including selling a product as organic when it’s not. Once food fraud is described, a whopping 63 percent of Canadians are concerned about it. Worse still, more than 40 percent of Canadians feel they have been victims of food fraud. These are alarming results and can’t be ignored.

Food categories that are especially vulnerable to food fraud are fish, seafood, liquids, spices, fruits, vegetables and meat products. Canada has seen its share of food fraud cases in recent months. One of the most notable involved Mucci Farms in Ontario. The company was fined $1.5 million by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for selling Mexican tomatoes as a product of Canada. The company, however, denied that the labelling was intentional and faulted their computer system. Other cases have emerged, involving mostly whistle-blowers trying to draw more attention to food fraud, and the number of cases is adding up. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency received over 40 complaints in 2016, and many expect that number to be even higher in 2017.

Some may believe that food fraud is a victimless crime. This is not so. First, what is at stake is the entire food economy. For any food business to grow and offer high-quality food products, it requires consumer trust. If trust is lost, then everything the industry is trying to accomplish will become more challenging. Why would consumers pay more for a product they deem fraudulent? The majority of food companies are ethically sound, but you only need a few cases of food fraud to damage the reputation of an entire industry. But most importantly, our study suggests that consumers with allergies and/or food intolerances are likely to feel more vulnerable than other consumers when it comes to food fraud. Consequently, it is as much a socioeconomic issue as it is a public health one.

Meanwhile, consumers should adopt extreme prejudice when they shop for food and visit restaurants. They should look for inconsistencies in pricing and quality. If a food product is much cheaper at one outlet, perhaps the deal is too good to be true. Consumers should also ask retailers and restaurant operators pointed questions about procurement strategies, so the supply chain is more transparent to them.

But humans are humans, and food fraud has been going on for more than 2,000 years. The first reported cases were back in the time of the Roman Empire, when suspicions around adulterated wines and oils were prevalent. Unlike that time, today we have technologies allowing us to detect fraudulent behaviour. Research centres and companies around the world are developing portable technologies that allow consumers to validate the content of food labels. Imagine testing your own products at home to see if that apple is really from Ontario or that olive oil is really from Italy! The technology exists, but the costs are prohibitive — the devices can cost more than $200,000.

One day, consumers, empowered by these technologies, will become the most powerful regulators the food industry could ever imagine. Knowing that consumers can test the integrity of products, the whole food supply chain will be forced to become more disciplined, and the rotten apples will have to go, no pun intended. Over time, humans themselves may not get rid of food fraud, but their technology will.

Governments play an important role in preventing food fraud. Regulators should encourage consumers to come forward with anonymous tips. To help with this, the government needs to increase public awareness of the federal  Office of Consumer Affairs, part of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.  Also, the government should forge partnerships with well-established research centres that could help with random testing to detect problematic sectors affected by food fraud.

This article is part of the Canadian Agriculture at the Cutting Edge special feature.

Photo: Maple syrup cans are seen at a sugar shack Friday, February 10, 2017 in Oka, Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois is professor of agri-food distribution and  policy in the faculties of management and agriculture at Dalhousie University.

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