Bogus beef. Fake fish. Dodgy vodka.
A survey of fish by the authority in 2011 found that almost one in five products was labelled incorrectly. Of the 111 samples analysed, almost a fifth were labelled as cod when in fact they contained cheaper fish, such as pollock or smelt.
Take-aways were the worst offenders with almost a third of fish on sale mislabelled. Another investigation involving genetic testing found that wild salmon was actually farmed salmon.
This may sound familiar: more than 10 years ago, the authority took 30 samples of chicken fillets imported from the Netherlands and found foreign DNA in 17 samples. Seven contained DNA from cattle, seven contained pig DNA, and three chicken samples contained both cattle and pig.
Another investigation by the authority found that five out of 20 randomly selected Irish honeys were not Irish. How could it tell? The pollens found in the honey came from plants such as eucalyptus and echium – plants you wouldn’t expect to see in Irish gardens.
Eating Chinese honey when you believe it to be Irish honey is not going to kill you, but some cases of food fraud have involved multiple deaths. The Czech Republic is still dealing with the fallout from last year’s contamination of alcohol products with industrial methanol. It was blamed for about 40 deaths in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
The counterfeit vodka and rum was sold in markets, restaurants and pubs and led to a ban on the sale of drinks with an alcohol content above 20 per cent.
In a scandal in China in 2008, melamine in infant formula killed at least six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands. The chemical, which causes kidney stones in young children, was added to milk to artificially enhance protein readings.
In an attempt to identify problematic food ingredients, the US Pharmacopeial Convention has set up a database – foodfraud.org– that gathers incidents of food fraud from all over the world. Its records show cases of melamine adulteration dating back to 1979, so if the database had existed earlier, perhaps the infant formula scandal would never have happened.
Prof Reilly says these food scandals have one thing in common: people are boosting profits by using cheaper raw materials. This was the reason the FSAI decided to carry out DNA testing of beef products. “It was against a background of increasing prices of raw materials used in food and animal-feed manufacture, and the global sourcing of ingredients. This can lead to a temptation to cut corners and to substitute cheaper raw materials for higher-priced ingredients,” Reilly says. And the longer the food supply chain, the higher the risk that something may go wrong.
He believes these scandals highlight the need for a robust food-control system that puts consumers’ interests first.
He says DNA testing will become the norm in Europe, if not globally, as a result of the horse-meat scandal. But he suspects fraudsters will always exist. “Food fraud will probably always be with us because of the nature of some people. If they think they can put something cheaper on the market, whether it’s a fake watch or TV, they will.”