With recent scares of salmonella in Goldfish, Listeria outbreaks and beef recalls, it is important now more than ever to maintain vigilant about food safety. From farm to storefront, there has been a growing emphasis on quality, regulation, and consumer safety, and with the implementation of FSMA over the past few years, this focus has only intensified. The trend continues with the announcement of the USDA’s intention to focus its Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) on fraud prevention.
What is Food Fraud?
Food fraud is the act of purposely altering, misrepresenting, mislabeling, substituting or tampering with any food product at any point along the farm–to–table food supply–chain. Fraud can occur in the raw material, in an ingredient, in the final product or in the food’s packaging (via FSNS). Food fraud encompasses a number of intentional adulteration methods including substituting one product for another, using unapproved additives, misrepresenting something, mis-branding or intentional contamination.
While food fraud typically takes place to save the producer or supplier money, the effects are either subtle enough that the consumer does not notice or not harmful at all. The Top Ten most adulterated foods in the United States in 2013 were:
- Olive oil (mixed with peanut oil, palm oil and sesame oil)
- Milk (watered down with cane sugar)
- Honey (mixed with beet sugar and sugar syrup)
- Saffron (diluted with cheaper ingredients)
- Orange juice
- Coffee (mixed with twigs and roasted barley)
- Apple juice (mixed with other fruit juices)
- Grape wine
- Vanilla extract
- Maple syrup (watered down with cane sugar, maple flour and beet sugar)
While food fraud can be harmless to consumers, when it comes to allergies and mislabeling, it can cause serious illness and even death. Food fraud cases involving olive oil have been known to be mixed with peanut oil, creating a deadly product for consumers with peanut allergies. Seafood is also a common culprit for mislabeling. A 2013 U.S. study conducted by Oceana found 38 percent of all restaurants sampled and 74 percent of all sushi eateries, mislabeled the species of fish served.
FDA’s Food and Nutrition Services Focusing on Food Fraud
Brandon Lipps, the acting deputy under Secretary for USDA Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services explained the initiative, saying…
“Integrity is essential to meeting the mission of all FNS nutrition programs, now and into the future. We will continue to improve operations and outcomes in close collaboration with its state and local partners to combat waste, fraud, and abuse and best serve our participants and American taxpayers.”
The intent of this announcement is simple, but effective. It involves highlighting the attention given to transparency and accuracy, as well as improving fraud and waste prevention and quality control.
The program intends to focus not only on fraud prevention and food safety, but also on sustainability for the companies themselves. FDA Voice Scott Gottlieb says it best: “We need to make sure we implement these requirements in a way that’s cost-effective and efficient. Safeguards that are too costly to put into place, or are too hard for firms to adhere to, don’t work. They don’t meet their purpose.”
Given the scope of the initiative and the range of programs under the jurisdiction of the FNS, keeping this balance in mind is key. To help this, the FNS created a new position in the interest of honing in on and invigorating the campaign: the Chief Integrity Officer (CIO). Lipps announced the position himself, tasking the CIO with responsibility for managing “oversight, improvements, and overall integrity safety”. The CIO will be located in the Office of the Administrator at the FNS once the position is assigned. The CIO will be expected to instigate and oversee the integrity initiatives for each of the 15 federal feeding programs overseen by the FNS.
In addition to the installment of the CIO, the FNS is seeking to emphasize the protection needed from both internal and external sources. The FNS is bringing attention to proactive prevention with awareness of the dangers that pose a hazard to the integrity of the U.S. food supply. “We must recognize that our foods are vulnerable – not just from unintended contamination, but from those who would seek to deliberately do us harm.” This will be supported by the enforcement of the Intentional Adulteration Rule, which you can read more about here.