Imagine a world without commercial agriculture and a food commodity market. Individuals and families would have to depend on their farmed crops and livestock for survival. Governments and humanitarian organizations would have to find innovative ways to feed the vulnerable in societies hit by floods, wars, and any other disaster. Indisputably, commercial agriculture and food trade have contributed significantly to reductions in food insecurity and malnutrition around the world. Advances in science and technology have led to food engineering and processing techniques that produce high-quality, appealing foods that can be kept for longer periods.
Notwithstanding the gains that technology has brought, some food business operators are using it for unacceptable and fraudulent purposes in food production, processing, packaging, and storage. They deliberately reject the principle that “honesty is the best policy.” That act is commonly referred to as food fraud and goes back centuries, possibly as long as humans have been both eating and trading. In simple terms, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization defines it as “any suspected intentional action committed when a food business operator intentionally decides to deceive customers about the quality and/or content of the food they are purchasing in order to gain in undue advantage, usually economic, for themselves.” It can also be defined as food and its derivatives that are altered, misrepresented, mislabeled, substituted, or tampered with. Not only does it deny the consumer value for money, fraud also can have serious implications for the health of consumers and sometimes lead to death. For instance, in 2008, the ingestion of milk containing melamine sickened over 300,000 people, with more than 50,000 children hospitalized.
Consumers worldwide were stunned by headlines out of the West about the adultered milk, industrial rapeseed oil contaminated with aniline and sold as olive oil, horse meat labeled beef, honey adulterated with cane sugar or corn syrup, and Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter. But food fraud is not confined to any one nation or region. It just happens outside the spotlight in many parts of the world. Fraudulent food activities perpetrated in Africa and Ghana, specifically, have mostly been unidentified or gone unnoticed. Those that have been documented in Ghana include: donkey or buffalo meat labeled as beef; palm oil adulterated with Sudan dye; honey adulterated with melted Styrofoam, wax, sugar, and water; tomato powder made from annatto seed and milled residues of corn and cassava flour; shea butter mixed with corn porridge; and the changing of expiration dates on packaged products. These examples support what Dr. Faustina Dufie Wireko-Manu. a food technologist in Ghana, said in 2016: “Once you eat food in Ghana, you have eaten something that you are not supposed to eat.” Adding to the potential for fraud is the current trend of using the word “organic” on food products on the Ghanaian market. This is a result of the polarization of the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Ghana. Uninformed or misinformed consumers are lured into buying foods marketed as “organic” simply because they aren’t a GMO.
Peter Shears, a professor of consumer law and policy at Plymouth Law School, says: “Food fraud is big business. Its true extent is unclear, but consumers are undoubtedly being cheated out of hundreds of millions of pounds each year in the UK alone.” In its 2010 report, Consumer Product Fraud Deterrence and Detection, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (now known as the Consumer Brands Association) estimated food fraud’s cost to the food industry at $10–$15 billion annually in the U.S. alone.
Given the pressing need to stabilize food supplies and protect consumers from unsafe foods, what can be done to combat food fraud?
Governments, regulatory bodies, and research institutions, especially in Africa, should coordinate to enforce relevant laws and make available technologies to identify and control food fraud. Food business operators must have a robust food safety management system to ensure that potential or deliberate mistakes are caught early or do not happen in the first place. Consumers should be vigilant, raise alarms once food fraud is detected, and demand better protection by regulatory agencies and their governments.