It’s often said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
But does the same apply to honey cut with high-fructose corn syrup?
If would seem so, according to the front-page story of our Farmit Manitoba section, where Alexis Stockford digs into the sticky issue of honey adulteration.
The problem for regulators and reputable beekeepers in Manitoba is that adulterated honey from China and other countries can’t be detected by taste alone. A definitive answer requires increasingly sophisticated testing.
It’s a frustrating situation both for producers and consumers. The producers who are doing the right thing lose out while cheaters prosper. And consumers can’t seem to ever be quite sure of what they’re putting into their mouths.
It’s also not unique to the world of honey production. Food fraud is an important issue that circles the globe. From olive oil diluted with sunflower oil to the more sinister example of Parmesan cheese containing wood pulp, it appears that the darker side of human nature is too often present in our food supply.
The only true antidote to this sort of chicanery is rigorous public oversight by trained inspectors — and for this every Canadian, producer, consumer and food exporter alike — should be grateful for the work of regulators like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
That body oversees the safety of our nation’s food supply and it, along with other regulators like the Canadian Grain Commission, transfer credibility to Canadian exporters.
There’s a reason why Canadian food products are viewed worldwide as safe, wholesome — and often premium — products, and a large part of that model is our public quality assurance programs.
The problem appears, in Canada, to largely be an imported problem. While it’s impossible to say there are no bad actors out there, lurking in the corners of Canada’s food industry, most of the products flagged by the CFIA seem to be imported items.
But even if the problem is originating overseas, it is coming home to roost. Defrauded consumers become more wary and distrustful of the entire food production system. Ethical producers and processors lose out because they can’t compete against dishonest players. And in the end, we’re all a bit poorer for the actions of others.
Dalhousie University’s Sylvain Charlebois, who writes regularly about food policy issues and is featured regularly on these pages, has been sounding the alarm about the true costs of food fraud for years.
He says that while 40 to 50 per cent of Canadians suspect they’ve experienced food fraud, the truth is most, if not all, of us have been victims.
“With so much of this happening — and so many ways to do it — at different levels and steps in the supply chain, it is almost impossible for consumers to avoid it. But as we talk more and more about it, Canadians are waking up to the realization that the “too-good-to-be-true” bargain they got was exactly that — too good to be true,” he told the Canadian Food Safety Institute (CFSI), in an interview for its website (foodsafety.ca).
Ultimately addressing the issue of food fraud is going to involve everyone in the Canadian food chain, including consumers.
Regulators have been upping their game, with the CFIA taking the lead on this file. They’ve set up a bureau to accept and follow up on complaints and are taking the issue seriously, Charlebois added during the same interview, noting they were hiring the necessary expertise and correctly viewing it as a food safety issue.
The industry is exploring new and better ways to document the provenance of food products, such as blockchain. While it has some promise, the players will need to find ways to overcome trepidation and work together more closely.
And on the other side of the grocery cart, consumers have a very important role. Here it comes down to Charlebois’ comment about “too good to be true.”
While everyone likes a bargain, there’s only so far bargain hunting can go. At some point the pursuit of ever-cheaper products is going to incentivize someone, somewhere, to cut a corner.
As Charlebois explained to the CFSI, that’s going to be a very difficult issue to untangle. Most consumers, absent food allergies, likely won’t care overly much if their olive oil isn’t of the highest quality, so long as it does the job. But they need to be made aware that supporting what he calls “scam artists” can affect more vulnerable consumers like those with allergies and it makes it harder for honest companies to survive, which goes on to make it even more likely that consumers will be scammed in the future.
It’s a vicious circle, and the Canadian agriculture and food sector needs to flip the script and turn consumer into ally.
Otherwise, cheap food will come at a high price.