The recent revelation that many “beef” burgers in the UK are actually “partial horse” burgers has caused quite a stir. In case you haven’t been following the story, here’s a rough recap: Approximately 170 tons of horse meat traveled from Poland, across several countries, to Ireland, and then from Ireland to the UK, where it ultimately ended up in “beef” patties. According to the BBC, certain lots of ground meat labeled as “beef” actually contained up to 80% horse meat. Although the situation came to light just three weeks ago, there is speculation that this horse-as-beef deception may have been going on for six months or longer.
The upshot? Britain is blaming Ireland, Ireland is blaming Poland, burger and supermarket chains are firing their suppliers, and the average British citizen is not pleased. One citizen, quoted in The Guardian, summed it up quite simply by stating: “It grosses me out.”
Food Fraud is on the Rise
In case it offers any consolation, British citizens are not alone. According the non-profit U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), food fraud is on the rise around the world. In January, USP reported that food fraud cases have risen by 60 percent over the past two years. A full 95 percent of these cases involved “food adulteration,” which is the practice of replacing an authentic food (beef, for example), either partially or completely, with a cheaper substitute (horse meat, perhaps).
For those of us who do not eat much red meat, there is little cause for celebration. USP reports that as much as one-third of all “100% Honey” sold in stores may contain something other than honey. Vegetable oils, spices, and seafood are also suspect. For a comprehensive list of unappetizing news from a variety of sources, visit the USP “Food Fraud Database.”
“We suspect that what we know about the topic is just the tip of the iceberg,”
– Dr. Jeffrey Moore, creator and lead analyst of the USP Food Fraud database.
Food fraud can easily go undetected since it rarely causes obvious illness. In fact, there have been no reports of physical illness directly linked to the horse meat in British burgers. Does this mean that food fraud is not a public health risk? Is it merely a threat to consumer confidence? Not if you were to ask Drs. Douglas Moyer and John Spink, researchers with Michigan State University’s (MSU) Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP).
A Public Health Risk
In their article, Defining the public health threat of food fraud, Moyer and Spink argue that, given the complexity of our current food system, public health vulnerability from food adulteration is real– whether the adulteration comes from a food safety incident, a food defense incident, or food fraud. A food safety incident (for example, ground beef contaminated with e. coli ) is unintentional and results in unintentional harm. A food defense incident (malicious tampering or food terrorism) is intentional and solely designed to inflict great harm. A food fraud incident, while definitely intentional, is not intended to be a public health threat. The motive is simply economic gain.
Nonetheless, creative food swindlers have inadvertently caused great harm. In China, melamine, an industrial plasticizer, was dumped into poor quality milk because it mimicked high quality protein and allowed the milk to pass tests for high protein content. When scores of people were harmed and several babies died as a result, the fraudulent practice was uncovered.
Moyers and Spink use melamine as an example of an unexpected food adulterant. They point out that our current food screening systems are not designed to detect this type of unconventional contaminant. Furthermore, they argue that modern food supply chains and manufacturing infrastructure have vastly expanded the scale and potential impact of food fraud. The world’s food supply chains are interdependent. Many of the ingredients in today’s manufactured foods are supplied from a multitude of sources spanning the globe. In a system this complex, health risks are inevitable.
On a Positive Note . . .
The goal of Moyer and Spink’s research is to shift the focus from fraud intervention strategies to fraud prevention strategies. Food fraud is opportunistic. If we can understand the conditions that create opportunities for fraud, we can alter those conditions, remove the opportunities, and prevent food fraud from happening in the first place.
In Case You are Curious . . .
Horse meat is generally more nutritious than beef. It has fewer calories, more protein, more iron, less cholesterol, and far less saturated fat. If you care to see for yourself, visit the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. You’ll find horsemeat in the category of “Game Meat,” below bison and just above moose .
King M, Buckley J. February 1, 2013. Horsemeat scandal leaves Burger King facing a whopping backlash. The Guardian. guardian.co.uk.
Pierson F. January 23, 2013. New additions increase number of records in USP Food Fraud database by 60 percent, add seafood, clouding agents and lemon juice as foods vulnerable to fraud. Press Release. U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, Rockville, MD.
Spink J, Moyer DC. 2011. Defining the public health threat of food fraud. J Food Sci. 2011 Nov-Dec;76(9):R157-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02417.x.