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Opinion: Fighting food fraud

Food fraud is everywhere.

It can take many forms such as adulteration, substituting one ingredient with a much cheaper one, or misrepresentation including selling an organic product when it’s not.

Once food fraud is described, a whopping 63 per cent of Canadians are generally concerned about food fraud. Worse still, more than 40 per cent of Canadians feel to have been victim of it.

Canada has seen its share of cases in recent months, one of the most notable ones is Mucci Farms in Ontario. The company was fined $1.5 million for selling Mexican tomatoes as a product of Canada. The company, however, denies that the labelling was intentional and faults their computer system. Other cases have emerged, mostly whistleblowers trying to give food fraud more attention.

Cericola Farms, one of the largest poultry processors in the country, was in court over organic mislabelling allegations. The number of cases is adding up. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency received over 40 complaints in 2016.

Some may believe that food fraud is essentially 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. Consumers with allergies and/or intolerances are likely to feel more vulnerable than other consumers when thinking of food fraud.

Grocers have made recent investments in technologies that provide a detection tool, but these measures can only do so much. Companies can’t really report fraudulent companies for fear of retaliation. That’s right. Food companies denouncing fraudulent cases are accused themselves of food fraud.

Regulators would have to sample test everything, which would be operationally impossible. Public regulators have been aware of the issue for quite some time but have struggled to find any solutions.

Meanwhile, consumers should shop for food and visit restaurants with extreme care, looking for consistencies 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 pointed questions about procurement strategies to retailers and restaurant operators.

But humans are humans and food fraud has been going on for more than 2,000 years. First reported cases go back to the Roman Empire. Today, however, we have technologies allowing us to detect fraudulent behaviour.

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 costs are prohibitive. Some of these devices can cost more than $200,000.

One day though, consumers empowered by these technologies will become the most powerful regulators the food industry can ever imagine. Knowing that consumers can ultimately test the integrity of any product, the entire food supply chain will need to be more disciplined.

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