The new food labelling legislation introduced in December 2014 has generated much discussion in the media and has not been understood or supported in certain sectors of the food industry, yet it provides a needed boost to the efforts to ensure responsible management of food products throughout the entire supply chain to avert risk of illness or even death for those who have food allergies.
Food fraud is committed when food is deliberately placed on the market for financial gain with the intention of deceiving the consumer. The two main types of food fraud are sale of food unfit and potentially harmful and deliberate mislabelling of food, such as products substituted with a cheaper alternative. Food fraud may also involve sale of meat from animals that have been stolen or illegally slaughtered, as well as wild game animals like deer that may have been poached.
The fish industry illustrates the international nature of the issue. In the US, a Boston Globe study undertaken in 2011-2 suggests that as much as half of fish purchased in US restaurants is incorrectly labelled. This type of fish fraud generally consists of a restaurant or market claiming to sell one type of fish, but actually delivering another cheaper fish to the customer. For example, red snapper is often replaced with tilapia. Studies in various parts of the US found up to 55% of fish purchased and DNA tested had been mislabelled by the seller.
Fish fraud is often intentional to increase profits. Other reasons are poor translations which are common with imported fish, and certain species with than one name resulting in mislabelling. Fish names are also sometimes changed for marketing reasons: the toothfish perhaps understandably became more popular after an American fish seller in 1977 started calling it Chilean sea bass.
One type of fraud that has raised real concern in this country is the substitution of ground almond for ground peanut, a cheaper alternative. This has been suspected in the supply chain of some takeaway restaurants and can pose a serious threat to food allergic consumers.
The new regulations make it the responsibility of food vendors to find out what’s in the ingredients they use to provide accurate information to their customers, but substitutions or translation issues in the supply chain can make this a real challenge. In June, RSPH will be launching a campaign to raise awareness of the need for food retailers to be more thorough in presenting the right information to help keep customers safe.
The responsible management of food allergens by the food industry is an ever present challenge and some measures are bound to be unpopular with certain sectors in the industry. However, the responsibility cannot lie in an unbalanced way with the consumer when the stakes are potentially so high.
The constant vigilance needed to protect consumers from food fraud plays a vital role too in maintaining the honesty of supply chain management and food provision. In addition to the legal measures available, a sustainable approach needs to emphasise increasing awareness and upskilling staff through high quality training programmes.
RSPH, through its projects, events and qualifications, continues to be committed to the high standards needed to support efforts to protect the health of the general population.