Today’s increasingly global market can make tracking where Canadians’ food comes from difficult. Supporting food integrity— where the products we use came from, what they are made of and how they are sold— is a growing job for Canada’s regulators, as well as food producers, shippers and sellers. We checked in on this important work to see how it continues during the COVID-19 pandemic, and learned some tips consumers can use to spot and stop food fraud in its tracks.
How food fraud affects you
The American Consumer Brands Association estimates food fraud affects about 10% of all commercially sold food products, costing between $10 and $15 billion per year.
An issue with a global reach and impact, food fraud carries an equally wide range of definitions. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal regulator in charge of dealing with fraudsters, the term includes:
- Adulterating or diluting a product by adding filler or omitting ingredients from a label
- Making false claims about what is in food: saying something is “fat free” when it has fat
- Substituting one food for another for sale
- Mislabeling the weight and description of food packaging: this usually happens when a product is dressed up as “organic” or hiding the quantity of the food in a packaged product
But who is perpetrating food fraud? With the broad range of potential infractions covered by the CFIA, there is no set of usual suspects committing these food-related capers. Previous investigations by food fraud experts point to a mix of “opportunistic” and “organized” offenders.
Australian consulting firm Food Fraud Advisors explains that opportunists are usually part of legitimate businesses driven by financial problems and usually commit one-off crimes. Organized food fraud “[tends] to involve more people and the fraud is more likely to have a broader affect along and across supply chains.” The problem of organized operations is long-term and international in scale and impact.
A 2019 research paper by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity shows that food fraud is a rising concern. The Centre’s study found that 89 per cent of respondents are strongly to moderately concerned about food fraud.
A 2017 Dalhousie study makes it clear, food goes beyond idle concern for Canadian consumers. Of the university’s 1,088 survey subjects, 42 per cent believed they purchased counterfeit food product at some point while shopping.
Dalhousie’s public opinion poll is aligned with some results conducted in field tests.
The not-for-profit conservation organization Oceana Canada found 44 per cent of the 400 fish samples it took from restaurants and food retailers across Canada mislabeled. In most these cases, the role of more expensive fish on the menu was filled by imposter, cheap fish or in some cases, endangered species.
According to Oceana’s recent 2020 report, food fraud causes annual losses of up to $93.8 million in tax revenue and up to $379 million in revenue just for the Canadian seafood industry and its workers.
There are risks beyond simple mislabeling of products. According to an Oceana study from 2019, fraudulently sold fish potentially harbours “parasites, allergens, contaminants, aquaculture drugs and pesticides used in industrial farming operations, or natural toxins.”
Oceana found that Canada’s fisheries produced “high-quality seafood”, with imported fish following a “complex and obscure path, often crossing many national borders before it reaches our plate.”
How Canada combats food fraud
In response to the concerns of consumers, the Canadian government recently launched the Food Policy of Canada, helping the Canadian Food Inspection Agency crack down on food fraud and joining multinational initiatives helping track and combat food fraud.
The goal is to make the work of enforcement easier by identifying high-risk foods in Canada for inspection.
“The CFIA’s food fraud initiative is in its early stages,” the agency told us, “and part of this work is to better assess the extent of the problem in Canada while taking appropriate action.”
In 2018–19, a tip-off about diluted Canadian honey sparked a CFIA investigation, preventing nearly 12,800 kg of honey with foreign sugars from entering Canadian markets. The agency hopes to replicate this successful surveillance operation to “improve targeting of future sampling and inspection activities to combat the issue of food fraud in Canada.”
As a recent meeting of 1,500 food scientists at the Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board recently concluded, the CFIA can expect an increase in these kinds of activities. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts food prices and consumers’ finances, food fraud becomes more lucrative.
According to the CFIA, food fraud incidents have increased world wide since the pandemic began, and the CFIA is “monitoring the situation to identify risks.”
The pandemic creates a breeding ground for falsely marketed “health products.” Some blatant examples just south of the Canadian border include passing off toothpastes and other colloidal silver supplements— known to cause severe health risks— as cure-alls for COVID-19.
For now, Canada is in the clear when it comes to this scale of fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic. “While the pandemic creates a challenging environment,” the CFIA explained, “[We] will make risk-informed decisions to tackle any potential or emergent issues to protect Canada’s food supply.”
What you can do to help
The pandemic makes enforcement a riskier game for agents on the ground. Increased costs across the food supply chain also incentivize fraudsters to cut regulatory corners. While the CFIA is still on the case, consumers play a critical role in helping catch food fraud if bad products still manage to find their way to store shelves.
Several low-cost food fraud testing kits including the Guelph Ontario-based LifeScanner Species Identification Kit are entering the market to protect consumers from food fraud. While test results are not yet available in real time, they give consumers and food connoisseurs the opportunity to become citizen-scientists: another line of defense ensuring Canada’s food integrity.
While new technology, including DNA testing and Blockchain verification can help protect Canada’s food integrity, the CFIA still encourages consumers to be inquisitive and ask questions about their food: “Consumers should stay aware, check the product label, consider the price, and contact the company with any questions.”
For goods like olive oil and honey, there are some easy at-home tests consumers can do to check the quality of their purchases. Just be warned: some information available on the web can be unreliable, or downright fake.
For other products, it may also come down to good brand research and avoid bargain hunting with products that are unfamiliar to shoppers buying them.
According to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, a key reason why food fraud has become a growing public topic and a focus for food regulators is because of careful and conspicuous consumers.
In a 2019 interview, Charlebois praised consumers for making food fraud a bigger government priority: “Consumers, empowered by social media, are responsible for forcing the supply chain to become more transparent,” he observed. “When you talk about food fraud, you have to look at transparency in general, which is probably why we’re talking more about food fraud today than ever before.”
As with any systemic issue, food fraud needs a country-wide approach. Without consumers keeping an eye on products they buy, or importers and sellers keeping industry standards high, or continued vigilance, cooperation and innovation by Canada’s food producers, we put our food integrity at risk.
For the most reliable information about products to stay away from and business to be wary of, the CFIA’s website maintains a comprehensive list of food recall warnings and options for email or social media-provided updates to consumers. They also run a handy tip line to report any suspicious goods. Folks in Quebec can also reach out to the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec for similar provincial information.
Fighting food fraud is a team effort, but with evolving technology, empowered consumers and vigilant government agencies on the case, we can keep Canadians safe and aware of falsely labelled food during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.