Cases of food fraud are frighteningly common. In fact, they’re on an epidemic scale says Richard Evershed, co-author of a book that uncovers how we’re being duped and the resulting battle between scientists and fraudsters.
According to the UK Food Standards Agency, one-tenth of the food on the country’s supermarket shelves isn’t what it claims to be. The produce we buy has been ‘adulterated’ in some way. According to Richard Evershed, one half of the authorship duo responsible for a new book on the subject, “that’s just an educated guess”. Within the pages of ‘Sorting the Beef from the Bull’ - a reference to the 2013 ‘Horsegate’ scandal in Europe - Evershed and his co-author Nicola Temple lift the lid on a practice that has been around since prehistoric times. At the more innocent end of the scale of deception, foods are creatively labelled to imply that they are of higher quality than we might think, while at the other, foodstuffs are contaminated by ingredients not fit for human consumption.
Scandals to hit the news have included rat meat being sold as mutton, goats’ cheese that is made from sheep’s milk, and cheap fish being misrepresented as expensive premium commodities such as sea bass. But whatever the case, it is fraud, and the fraud is driven by money, so “unless money suddenly becomes less important, the deception will become worse before it gets better”, the authors say. It is a network of deception that costs the global food industry billions of dollars a year, while consumers can, and do, pay with their lives.
In 1981 there were a thousand deaths (and 25,000 serious illnesses) attributed to a brand of ‘olive oil’ that had been adulterated with industrial-quality rapeseed oil. In 2008 an estimated third of a million children became ill in China following the adulteration of milk powder with the nitrogen-rich compound melamine. As a result the dairy giant responsible was forced into bankruptcy, 60 countries recalled Chinese dairy products and the cost to the industry is currently estimated at $11.5bn. In 1986, 17 Italians died, while many more were hospitalised, as a consequence of drinking wine that had been spiked with methyl alcohol, an ingredient more commonly associated with automotive anti-freeze and solvents.
Evershed, who is professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, is unashamedly “rankled by food fraud”. In a 30-year career in analytical chemistry he has pioneered methods for studying prehistoric diet and agriculture, the environmental impacts of modern farming and also food fraud detection. His team has developed a scientific process for detecting the illegal adulteration of vegetable oil. His methods have been used by the Metropolitan Police to help in a murder investigation. He also makes his own marmalade (and even dog food) because he likes to know what he is eating, and the best way to know that is to make your own food from first principles.
The son of an engineer, Evershed first got involved with science and technology through his love of shiny silver scientific instruments. He was also a keen advocate of wholesome food from a very young age, so it was only a matter of time before his interests coalesced. “What’s interesting to me,” he says, “is that you can apply high-end analytical science to reveal food fraud. And I thought that this was great because I love food and I care about food.”
He recalls how “even as a student” he ate wholesome food. But the real revelation came when he attended a conference in the 1980s at which he found out that you could apply scientific research values to test whether your food is what you want it to be. “Food is chemically complicated and as such it represents a significant analytical challenge. As a chemist I’m interested in how you can take apart complex biological material - which is what food mostly is - using scientific methodology. I apply that in much of my research.”
Evershed believes food fraud probably dates back to the Bronze Age. This was when food production moved from being all about hand-to-mouth survival methods of feeding kith and kin to the ‘commoditisation of food’. Since then, we’ve never really stopped taking short cuts to ‘improve’ our food. This may have originated with good intentions, related to preserving and trading surpluses as agricultural methods became more sophisticated. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and “at some point it became about money”.
The Romans masked the flavour of sour wine by adding lead, while olive oil has for millennia, as a matter of routine, been diluted with inferior oil in order to stretch a premium product. When you buy a smoothie in a supermarket today, advertised on the label as being a drink made from a expensive fruit such as mango or strawberry, have a look at the microscopic small print which will inform you that what you are buying is mostly squashed apples and pumpkins, which are of course significantly cheaper. “Today, food quality is being systemically lowered by suppliers who are driven by the desire to increase profit margins, most commonly by substituting a more expensive ingredient with a cheaper one.”
Deceiving consumers in this way is illegal, says Evershed, “but the consequences are much more far-reaching than is generally realised. Human health can be affected by the consumption of foods of lower nutritional value, with deaths being recorded from poisoning in extreme cases. Moral, ethical and religious principles may be affected too”. Meat may enter the vegetarian food chain, or pork be found in products for faith groups that do not eat pig meat.
Although adulteration can be detected by chemical and biochemical testing - “it is reassuring to know that most frauds will be detected” - there are still opportunities for fraud in most food groups simply because of the scale and complexity of our supply systems.
Evershed says that although consumers cannot perform tests to detect fraud, they can make choices that will minimise their exposure. As a general principle, he advocates buying literally whole food where possible. “If a fish has its head on, then it’s probably a fish,” he says.