How pure is your food? Food fraud is hard to detect, and lucrative

Burkhard Fraune –

The green liquor drips steadily as Andreas Kliemant feeds a cheap mixture made from shredded spinach, wasabi and pepper into funnel above a tank of cheap cooking oil.
This is the crook’s way of making what will be passed off as expensive olive oil. No one will notice the difference: the spurious oil tastes pretty similar to pricey cold-pressed olive oil.
“For as long as there has been food there has been fraud,” says Kliemant, a scientist who was recently demonstrating the fiddle during a food fair in a bid to alert consumers to rampant food fraud.
Restaurants in Europe have sometimes been caught selling pangasius, a cheap fish, disguised as expensive sole, and since time immemorial water has been added to wine and sugar to honey.
A bag on a market containing hazelnuts may well contain a few peanuts, which are cheaper — though the admixture could be dangerous to those with a peanut allergy.
Europe has seen repeated meat scandals, as last year with horsemeat found in “beef burgers” and before that chicken past its sell-by date being reprocessed for sale as fresh.
The profits are laundered in the same way as the illegal gains from selling drugs or from human trafficking.
Kliemant, a vet by training, works for the German consumer authorities and his task is to track down food fraud.
He was on hand at the “Green Week” agricultural show in Berlin to explain the difficulties faced by supermarkets.
Among his demonstrations was to place three small jars filled with oil for visitors to taste — two with genuine olive oil and one with his fraudulent variety.
The spinach and wasabi concoction was successful. “Very few people detected it,” he says.
Among the frauds found are artificially coloured chili, prawns puffed up with gel and plastic grains sprinkled in rice.
Instances of eggs claiming to be organic that are nothing of the kind, and meat masquerading as something that it is not are well known in many countries.
European Union countries are cooperating to track down the fraudsters. “The criminals are operating in mafia-like organisations,” the German food authorities say.
A few years ago, the US authorities estimated that the fraudulent food market was worth up to $15 billion annually.
The EU’s Europol agency spotted more than 10,000 tonnes and a million litres of fraudulent foods from 57 countries last winter, including artificially coloured olives in Italy, sugar containing chemical fertilizer in Sudan and adulterated alcohol in Greece and Britain.
Helmut Tschiersky, the head of the German office for consumer protection, notes that there are large profits to be made by the swindlers and that consumers are at their mercy by and large.
“But if a bottle of exclusive olive oil costs just 3 euros ($3), then something’s got to be wrong,” he adds as a caution to consumers. — dpa