Food Fraud is a complex aspect that need to be addressed in order to achieve food Secuity in Africa. Food fraud ranges from food substitutes, food chemicals, measurement fraud etc
When last did you buy 50kg bag of rice? Did you weigh it? I am guessing you didn’t, if you did you would realize that the 50kg bag of rice weighs about 40kg, and this is not just peculiar to rice, every food today has a fraud attached to it.
Every time you eat, it is either poison to your body or nourishment, so what we have on our plate could be – death, interestingly today, well over 10% of human diseases can be traced to food, 1 in 10 deathswas from food. Food in itself depicts life culture, tradition, hospitality, necessity, religion and luxury, it is the one thing we all depend on – irrespective of our status, shape, career, dreams, or even wealth.
Food by definition is any “nutritious” substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth. The keyword is nutritious and to nourish means to provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition.Fraud means any wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain; a person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.
Food fraud is thedeception of consumers through intentional adulteration of food or food processes, this today is done in various ways.Food fraud is an issue when we remember that today we have 3 levels of multidimensional food issues:
- hunger – no access to food,
- malnourished who do not have access to the required nutrients in their foods and
- obese – obesity is prove that even those who have money tend to move to unhealthier options mostly advertised as healthy with fancy names.
There are different categories of food frauds, and I will try to explain them in as simple terms as possible.
Food substitute: This is the exchange of one food for another such that the brand being marketed doesn’t contain what the consumer is told, this is prevalent in foods with supplements, juice, and processed foods. We have palm oil in milk, plastic in rice, none-beef in beef sausages etc. and the consumer is unaware of these alterations in their foods
Illegal additives or enhancement drugs: The use of different additives either to ripen fruits, grow animals faster or reduce mortality of such though these agents are detrimental to human health. The use of carbide to ripen fruits in Nigeria is on the rise, almost every aquaculture farm has unapproved additives used to grow the fishes, more additives are added during processing as the pineapple juice has not a single pineapple in it but rather additives and colours to give taste and colour.This is also present in our canteens (from mama-put to high ends) where consumers are at the mercy of the person cooking, and except if you are allergic to a substance or have a tongue that can detect the taste of what you don’t want or the substance has an actual taste that is difficult to hide (garlic, ginger), you might never really know what you have eaten – poison or nutrient.
Misrepresentation: The source of a food today keeps changing to ensure the consumer keeps buying as everything especially in the middle shelves in the supermarket always seem to be from Europe, down the shelves are Nigeria made food and high up the shelves are from China, these representations at times are very wrong and just a marketing strategy. The presence of sugar in most canned beverages and juices but using a name that most consumers cant readily identify with, or a metric system that a common man cant interpret remains a main stay in the food fraud industry, some do not even bother to tell what is in their products – chief culprits in Nigeria – water bottling companies as we know there are more than just Hydrogen and Oxygen in water, but never listed, our main food brands who gives us rice, beans, etc., these foods are packaged in frauds.
Brands & counterfeit: The name and the product are not related in anyway as companies tend to pick a name people can identify with as opposed to their actual product, most foods for diabetics do nothing to help them, food supplements industry are the chief culprits as more than a 30% of these supplements do not contain anything about the main ingredients quoted. This also includes smuggling of foods into Nigeria which may not be best for our citizens, the process the foods go through just to get them to the shelves. Smuggling in itself is a major problem as this beyond destroying the economy also allows for substandard goods to come in without meeting required standard, this we refer to in agriculture as “gray market”, at times there is what we call “market simulation” at play where the counterfeit tries to look every way like the original product and the consumer cant properly differentiate both.
Chemical and public health: From fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides etc the list is long on the abuse. Well over 90% of Nigerian farmers has never engaged in soil test, thus the application of fertilizers is based on discretion on what the seller has available, and this destroys not just the crops, the consumers but also the environment, then there is the use and abuse of different herbicides and pesticides, hormones etc. all in a way to make quick money. With our local produce being rejected by other nations for being substandard, we begin to ask, if it isn’t good enough for others to eat, who protects us from eating same?
A discussion of ‘food fraud’ won’t be complete if I fail to mention some of the factors that has actively promoted this menace, as a farmer, the fraud within the food system is on the rise and the consumer as well as the environment pays the ultimate price.
Economic motivation: The need for quick profit, to get more from doing less has become the drive, and somehow we have made food a commodity and this is dangerous. I speak with fellow farmers and those on the food value chain especially, whatever you do that reduces the quality of food, whether by addition or subtraction, from planting, harvest, storage, processing or transport, it is blood money because the death of the consumer is on you as a food evangelist.
Health consequences: It has been said again and again the next war might just be won on food, this is true as some farmers when they discover foods which can heal find a way to create the illness for the cure they have found to have a market. On the flip side, a few in order to boost sales cause unintentional health hazards for the society at large, while others just go ahead and claim health benefits for their foods. Today, very few farmers who claim the healthy process of their food production allowed me access to take their produce randomly for testing, and even amongst those who agreed, it came with a warning of not publishing my findings. There are also health practitioners who just like they get paid to prescribe some drugs also push for some foods because of the money to comes back to them as bonus for their PR work, spices, herbal teas, slimming teas, etc. are on the rise especially around public state or federal hospitals.
Ethical/religious concerns: This has also greatly contributed to our issues as we are a traditional society and we have strong ties to our roots and thus any scientific evidence or pathway that tends to not support our tradition is immediately seen as an attack. The drinking of herbal tea (agbo) remains a big issue as there is no dosage, body begins to build resistance for future ailments, in other areas religion is the block that stops a certain type of food in an area e.g. pork meat, “unclean meat”, etc. and in some cases tradition stands as the block – growing up I remember being told drinking coconut water will make me a dullard, no cherry, no snail etc., and these loop holes allow others to prey by increasing the price of such or increasing the alternatives that will be available for same purpose. It is not also unpopular to have certain foods (especially protein based animal diet) have a surge in price during some festivals e.g. Christmas and salah celebrations.
Intended harm: These are activities carried out deliberately to poison a particular sect of people or nations or population, either to control population growth via fertility, sex, boost sales of drugs or food supplements, etc. This todayisstill a fast rising menace as those in the food value chain engage in this deliberately despite knowing the harm, this is camouflaged in biased research results to show why it is not as bad as it seems or why the good they are doing (or intend to do) outweighs the wrong or harm they might cause.
Criminal liability: The vulnerability of the food value chain has also become enticing to criminals who are just motivated by outwitting or out smarting the systems in place, thus their primary goal isn’t just money but rather to explore every available loop hole, they are ready to make produce which seem good enough, something that most times can’t even be detected as defective or not okay. Most companies operate in this league, from rice, olive oil, fish etc.
There are generally foods which are most vulnerable today to food frauds, these include olive oil, milk, honey, fruit juice, baby formula, spices, nutritional supplements, alcohol and fish. The need to combat food fraud as individuals is paramount, thus I will focus on what we can do as individuals – thus I won’t discuss policies or expensive technologies for detection. There are two levels of combat: those who do these things intentionally – we have a strategy called “food defense” and those who are doing it unintentionally we combat using “food quality control”.
Know your food, know your farmer – This is fundamental to stopping food fraud, especially for fresh consumables e.g. Vegetables, try to know the farmer, understand how the produce is grown. Today we can grow crops without the use of soil, so we can push for communal farms where everyone in an estate grows a specific vegetable, and we can have trade by barter for foods, this way you know the source of your food. You can also buy from local small holder farmers as a way to have food integrity.
Food waste – We also need to move towards zero food waste as this in itself will reduce the need to produce more and thus the fraudsters have little or no gap to fill, as today about a third of the food produced goes to waste. From the highs of Lagos to the slums in Kuru, parties and events remains a constant feature every weekend – and the amount of food waste is ever increasing.
Whole food – There is a need to also deliberately choose whole foods when possible, and also know the source.
Gibberish – When looking at food labels, it is important to see if you understand what is written as contents, if you can’t pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it; if you can’t readily identify the plant or animal source then you definitely should not be eating it. In cases where the food labels don’t even bother to tell you what It contains or just slap in a bunch of figures as nutritional profile, be careful as most of these are misleading especially in cases where the known harmful produce is given every other name except the known name e.g. sugar today has well over 50 different names.
Food blockchain– The need to ensure transparency has brought about the block chain in the food system, for example from next year, with everything going to plan Eupepsia Place will have produce with a simple bar code you can trace to its very source to reveal farmers, transport, market etc that has worked on the produce before it got to your hand. There are other foods with bar code, it is important to learn how to read, interpret and maybe also scan to be certain of what you are eating.
We owe it to ourselves and environment to hold our self to not engage in food fraud, food waste and also ensure we insist on quality. Food quality is not dependent on the price paid for it, or how it is arranged, if the food is not healthy from the farm it can’t be corrected in the kitchen.