There is something quite disappointing about ordering a coffee only to be served something that does not meet our expectations. Anticipation and then unmet expectations. A first world problem and one that we can shrug off as a quirk of our indulgent western lifestyle; it is not something that will impact our health, our work, nor our future. It’s a quality issue not a food safety one. But, what if the factors or inputs are different? Instead of a mid-afternoon coffee, the item is malaria medication or a bowl of rice for a hungry child? Circumstances that do have severe consequences.
So, what’s the link between coffee, malaria medication and rice? Fraud. The despicable type of human behaviour that places financial return above human health.
Most articles on food fraud start with the declaration that food fraud is not new. Fraud as a concept, trying to deceive another to gain advantage, seems to be an inherent human trait. For those who are out to make a quick buck, to exploit another’s weakness, vulnerability, or goodwill; then padding something out to make it weigh heavier, or, replacing the active ingredient in a medication are not beyond the realms of possibility. The World Health Organisation reckon that 10% of the medications available in low to middle income countries are counterfeit – meaning that they are dangerous to consume, and /or they contain no active ingredients. By targeting low to middle income countries, the fraudsters exploit those countries without the infrastructure to detect and protect consumers.
The mechanism for fraud is the same; regardless of whether it is medication, food or beverage. Weaknesses in supply chains are exploited and innocent consumers are duped. Often, there is not awareness that a crime has even been committed; rather, the experience is put down to a poor-quality product or ineffective medication. When the issue is passed off as being a quality one, there is the risk of damage to the authentic brand.
What drives people to deceive? There are many reasons but with food fraud the central premise is that it is for financial gain. Understanding the motivation does help us to identify risk factors. Natural shortages in supply, without a subsequent decrease in demand provide a market opportunity for the entry of a fraudulent product. Take, for example, vanilla from Madagascar (the largest producer of natural vanilla): less than 1% of the world’s vanilla comes from natural sources and the cost of synthetic vanilla is 20 times cheaper than natural vanilla. It is not hard to extrapolate how we could be sold synthetic as natural and, for some of us, that is hard to swallow, given that synthetic vanilla is derived from petrochemicals. Vanilla also presents another fraud incentive and that is the considerable price difference between the natural product (up to $600 USD per kg) and its synthetic rival. As consumers, if we want to avoid being duped, we need to have a closer understanding of food systems and where the natural vulnerabilities lie within those systems; most importantly we should not be afraid to ask questions of suppliers.