Bogus beef. Fake fish. Dodgy vodka.
Organic fruit and vegetables. photographs: thinkstock/getty images
The horse meat scandal has exposed widespread food fraud. But it’s not new, it’s not confined to the meat business, and it will always be with us
Most people thought we were entering uncharted territory when it emerged that horse meat had been found in burgers and other beef products. But there was a sense of deja vu for anyone who remembered the Australian meat scandal of 1981.
It was revealed by an alert food inspector in San Diego who thought that three frozen blocks of Australian beef looked darker and stringier than they should. His instinct was right: it emerged that horse, donkey and kangaroo meat, masquerading as beef, were being exported to the US.
Papers released last November after a 30-year freedom-of-information battle by the journalist Jack Waterford showed that the scandal was bigger than originally thought, with meat destined for pet food being sold for human consumption.
“The flesh of donkeys, goats, kangaroos, buffaloes and horses, killed in the field and without regard to any consideration of hygiene . . . was used indiscriminately to produce food for human consumption,” said an appendix to a report into the issue.
So food fraud is nothing new. Nor are the jokes. We thought our horse-burger quips were hilarious, but US comedians had audiences rolling in the aisles with their Skippy-burger jokes back in 1981.
“Food fraud has been with us since God was a boy,” says Prof Alan Reilly, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). “Our earliest food legislation came from the idea of food fraud: people adding ingredients like chalk to flour and watering down milk.”
Research published last year in the Journal of Food Science, led by Dr John Spink of Michigan State University, found that the ingredients most likely to be adulterated were olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee and apple juice.
In December, a joint Interpol-Europol operation seized more than 135 tonnes of potentially harmful fake and substandard food and drink products in 29 countries. (Ireland was not part of the operation.) Products seized included coffee, soup cubes, truffles and caviar.
Known as Operation Opson II (opson is the ancient Greek word for food), it resulted in the recovery of more than 385,000l of counterfeit liquids, including vodka, wine, soy sauce and orange juice. Officers also seized fish, seafood and meat declared unfit for human consumption, as well as fake chocolate bars and condiments.
This was a follow-up to Operation Opson, in 2011, which seized more than 13,000 bottles of substandard olive oil, 30 tonnes of fake tomato sauce, 77 tonnes of counterfeit cheese and more than 12,000 bottles of substandard wine.
According to Interpol, consumers buying these illicit goods may be risking their health while criminal networks producing them make millions in profits that can be used to fund activities such as human and drug trafficking. In many cases, the quality of the packaging of the fake food and drink is very convincing.
This is particularly the case with fish, according to Prof Reilly. “Unless you have a trained eye, you wouldn’t be able to tell cod from coley.”