This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Fake Food, first released on June 6, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MALE BROADCASTER: As the scandal involving horse meat sold as beef widens across Europe, the European commission is stepping in.
MALE BROADCASTER 2: Off the supermarket shelves, but not the European political agenda. In London, on Saturday, the British government held an emergency meeting to discuss the horse meat crisis.
WOMAN BROADCASTER: Emergency summits have been convened in the UK and France and the race is on to find the source of what one British minister called, an international criminal conspiracy.
NICOLA TWILLEY: If you’re not British, you might be feeling a little confused right now. Horse meat crisis? What? But if you are British, like me, Horsegate was a really big deal. It was all anyone talked about for a few months in 2013.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And, honestly, it barely crossed my radar at the time here in the US. But it did have huge implications not only in the UK, and in Europe, but here, too.
TWILLEY: You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of history and science. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this week, not only will we figure out the mystery of how horsemeat was showing up in British supermarket hamburgers, but also—how common is this type of food fraud?
TWILLEY: How do we know what we’re eating is what it says it is? What kinds of foods are most likely to be faked, and why? And what does that tell us about our food system?
TWILLEY: Imagine you’re eating a burger. Join me for a minute here, and just picture your most favorite, juiciest, most delicious burger.
GRABER: You think you’re eating beef, of course—but then you find out that it’s actually horse.
NICOLA TEMPLE: I think I was quite shocked.
ANDY MORLING: I was shocked.
TWILLEY: I was shocked too. It started with some cheap own-brand supermarket burgers. Some had been sent to a lab for testing and they came back as 29 percent horse DNA. So like, practically a third of the burger was horse. And that didn’t go down too well with the Great British public.
BEE WILSON: It was the particular detail of the horse, which is just such a taboo meat because horses are beloved animals in Britain.
GRABER: You might recognize that last voice—Bee Wilson is practically a regular on Gastropod. She’s a food writer in the UK and she wrote a book called Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.
TWILLEY: It’s hard to overstate how much of a shock horsegate, as the scandal came to be known—how much of a shock it was in the UK. All of a sudden, it seemed like there was horse in everything. You’d pick up the papers or turn on the news and they’d found horsemeat in frozen lasagnes, or in ready-to-eat chile con carne, or in jars of bolognese sauce. Horse was everywhere.
TEMPLE: I’m very conscious about the food that I eat. But I think I was very surprised like most of the British public that something so large-scale in reputable supermarkets in the UK, such an exchange could be happening, such an adulteration.
GRABER: Nicola Temple—yes, this week we have TWO Nicolas on the show—Nicola number two co-authored a book called Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics. The book came out after horsegate—and horsegate is kind of why Brits wanted to read a book on food fraud forensics.
TWILLEY: In the UK, the food industry contributes about 200 billion pounds to the economy. Horsegate cost an estimated 10 billion. If I haven’t said it enough, it was a big deal.
GRABER: Obviously, this wasn’t just a matter of a couple of sneaky butchers adding a little cheap meat to their burgers. As journalists started to try to unravel the tangled web that had led to horse burgers, they found out that the network of slaughter houses and middlemen and suppliers stretched across Ireland, France, Denmark, the Netherlands.
TWILLEY: Researchers eventually ended up tracing most of the horsemeat in British burgers back to Romania.The problem began when Romania banned horse-drawn vehicles from its roads. And as that one random, obscure law phased in, a lot of horses were headed to the slaughterhouse. And some of them were bought by a Belgian meat dealer based in The Netherlands. The name of his company, I kid you not, was the Dutch word for horse, spelled backwards.
GRABER: But as we said, this was a huge network, and horse was coming from other countries, too. Some horsemeat traced back to Poland and Germany, via another Dutch trader. Horse DNA was also found in chicken nuggets in Greece. Once again, just to emphasize, there wasn’t supposed to be any horse in any of these products.
MORLING: I think it changed everything for—here in the UK, for regulators, for consumers, and also for industry. And I think we’d always known for many, many years that there was sharp practice within the food industry, low level non-compliance with with regulations. But this was something altogether new. This was very different. For the first time in history, serious organized criminality had been uncovered in the UK food supply chains
TWILLEY: That’s Andy Morling. Horsegate certainly changed everything for him.
GRABER: Because Andy is a cop. He’d been working as a cop for decades. But not on food crime.
MORLING: I’ve dealt with criminality from organized drug trafficking through corporate fraud, bribery, corruption, firearms smuggling, you know, you name it.
TWILLEY: When horsegate happened, Andy had just finished up a big collaboration with US police to tackle online child sex abuse.
MORLING: So I was looking for a new challenge, and I just happened to see the advert one day and hear about this new unit being established in it and it piqued my interest.
GRABER: The ad Andy saw was looking for someone to set up and lead the totally new National Food Crime Unit. Andy knew it was a major opportunity. This would be the first of its kind. No other country has a special crime unit dedicated exclusively to food.
TWILLEY: There are similar kinds of operations in Italy and The Netherlands, but Britain’s new Food Crime Unit is the only police department that deals with nothing but food. And crimes against it.
GRABER: So Andy got the job, and he immediately set to work. His first task was figuring out what it was exactly that his new unit was supposed to be fighting. Like, what is food fraud?
TWILLEY: So we called up the guy who wrote the paper defining food fraud. It was published in the Journal of Food Science, back in 2011, John Spink. He heads the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University.
JOHN SPINK: So we’ve got a wide range of types of fraud, and one is adulterant substances, so that could be putting something in or taking something out. Theft, stolen goods, tampering—so someone kind of messes with the package or changes the dates. All the way to really counterfeiting at the other end. And so really any type of illegal deception for economic gain using food.
GRABER: It can also be unlawful processing. Criminals actually paint old, gray olives with copper sulfate solution to make them look fresher and greener. Last year, Interpol seized 85 tons of painted olives in Europe.
TWILLEY: And then on the counterfeiting end, this is like when fraudsters label Greek sparkling wine as Prosecco, when Prosecco can only legally come from a certain region in Italy. These are all real, recent examples.
GRABER: And like John said, it can be adulteration—like swapping horsemeat for beef. Horsegate.
MORLING: And as I said this caught us all by surprise. We weren’t expecting there to be an issue of this magnitude within the food industry.
TWILLEY: Like Andy says, horsegate was a surprise because it was just so huge—it stretched over multiple countries in Europe, different abattoirs, processors, meat dealers, over multiple years.
GRABER: But horsegate wasn’t actually such a shock to Bee Wilson.
WILSON: Yes, I mean, to me, having written a book about the history of food adulteration, it just seemed all too familiar. I mean, I would say food fraud is as old as the buying and selling of food itself. It goes all the way back, and not just in Britain but everywhere: it’s universal. For as long as you’re going to have a buyer that can see they’ll make a quick buck by watering something down or padding something out, they’ll try to do that if they can get away with it.
TWILLEY: There’s food fraud in the history of ancient Rome, during the Song Dynasty in China—everyone, everywhere, for pretty much all of settled human history has either committed or been a victim of food fraud at some point. It’s universal.
GRABER: But, just like in horsegate, the UK was kind of ahead of the rest of the world when it came to large-scale food fraud in history, too.
WILSON: Actually, Britain was probably the first country in the world that properly industrialized food fraud. I mean, so a bit of these kinds of scams and swindles go on all the time, but on a large scale they’re a product of industrialized modern economies. And because Britain underwent the industrial revolution before anyone else, which brought with it lots of benefits, we also had an industrialized food supply before anyone else.
TWILLEY: A few different things happened as Britain industrialized. One was that people moved from the countryside to the city.
WILSON: So they lost that connection with seeing how food was grown, how food was produced. And there were these accounts of people who’ve lived in London their whole lives in the mid 19th century who didn’t really know what the taste of honey was. So if they were handed something that was let’s say some kind of glucose syrup mixed with a few dead bee legs, which was one of the ways that you could adulterate honey, they wouldn’t know the difference.
GRABER: And then there’s also the fact that food production was scaling up in a massive way. So for the first time, you have long supply chains. It’s not like heading down the lane to your neighbor who was a dairy farmer to get your milk. In fact, some of the foods weren’t even from England at all.
WILSON: The one I always think of is peppercorns. So the really kind of stupid, basic pepper fraud was if you wanted to just pad out some ground pepper you just took some of the floor sweepings off the floor and then were even different grades of that. There was something called PD which was pepper dust. And then there were something called DPD—dust of pepper dust.
TWILLEY: That’s basic fraud—the kind that still pretty common today. Stretching an expensive product with some cheap filler.
WILSON: But the really ingenious brilliant fake peppercorns—they found a way of manufacturing them where they take this kind of oil left over from linseed production and it was kind of blackish stuff and then they’d roll it into tiny balls and they’d mix a little bit of cayenne pepper in to give it a bit of bite. And I think they added some clay or something else. And you think, you almost want to admire the sheer brilliance of that. Except that it’s terrible because it’s trying to get people to consume residues and clay when they actually think they’re buying real peppercorns.
GRABER: Another hugely popular relatively new staple at the time was tea. Suddenly Brits were drinking a lot of tea. And not all of it was the real stuff.
WILSON: And this one again, it was a real division of labor. There were whole factories going on producing this fake tea, where they’d go into the English hedgerows and pick out various random leaves. Sloe leaves seem to have worked particularly well. And they’d take some back and some men would be charged with kind of washing and drying the leaves and baking them so they resembled real China tea leaves. Other people would roll the leaves up so they looked a bit more like real tea leaves. And then other people would be charged with painting them either with a black dye for black tea or with green dye for green tea. Now we think of green tea as a healthy one but if you were in Victorian England you should definitely pick the black one, because the black dye was something called logwood came from the West Indies which might give you a horrible stomach upset. Whereas the green dyes were made from various copper compounds and would actually give you heavy metal poisoning.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, Victorian England had its own version of Andy Morling: a food fraud fighting superhero named Frederick Accum.
WILSON: I think he’s a true hero. He was a German chemist. He was brought up in Westphalia, part of modern day Germany, where he got used to eating really good, high quality wholemeal sourdough bread. And Westphalia was also famous for its hams. And he clearly ate wonderful different fruit jams as a child.
GRABER: Frederick Accum came to England, and there were lots of things he loved about living in London.
WILSON: He made it to the top of British society. He became a fellow of the Royal Academy and he was one of the early proponents of gaslight in London, and he managed to make quite a lot of money from that. But at the same time, the way that people ate in London compared to what he’d been used to in Westphalia completely horrified him. And he looked at London bread and thought, this is no bread that I recognise. It’s made from really poor quality white flour and it’s all got this horrible additive in it called alum which was added to make the bread rise up and become puffy when it was made from inferior grain. And he was desperate to open the eyes of the British public to the fact that so much of what they consumed was not what it seemed.
TWILLEY: So to open their eyes, he wrote a book.
WILSON: It came out in 1820. It was called A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons.
GRABER: And, just like horsegate in 2013, Accum’s book really shook up London.
WILSON: I think on the one hand his book was a huge hit. It was really widely reviewed. And reviewers reacted with absolute horror. One of them in the Literary Gazette complained: “it is so horribly unpleasant to reflect how we are in this way beswindled, betrayed, bedrugged and bedeviled that we’re almost angry with Mr. Accum for the great service he has done by opening our eyes at the risk of shutting our mouths forever.” The government, on the other hand, did absolutely nothing. So from that point of view, his book was a failure because he really hoped he was going to change the legal system in Britain and he failed to do that.
TWILLEY: Even in Accum’s day, many of the foods that were most susceptible to fraud were those with the longest supply chains. Tea or peppercorns, for example. But today, everything in the store has a pretty long supply chain behind it. We live in a globalized food system. So if fraud was rampant in Victorian Britain, how big of a deal is it today?
GRABER: Estimates vary widely. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency believes that perhaps ten percent of the food on supermarket shelves falls into one of the fraud categories we described. John Spink thinks it might be five to seven percent in the US, though maybe it’s more. In India, some groups think it could be as high as forty percent in some places, ten percent in others. The truth is, we just don’t really know.
MORLING: The whole nature of frauds of that type are that they are largely gone undetected, so we don’t know. And that’s not really good enough.
GRABER: For one, people don’t necessarily know if they’re eating something fake. You often need complicated scientific equipment to detect fraud.
TWILLEY: And even if people think to worry it, they’ve usually already eaten the evidence.
MORLING: And that is the single biggest challenge we face: that the people who are the victims don’t know they’re the victims most of the time.
GRABER: But what about the businesses? Some companies can do tests in-house.
MORLING: You know, you can imagine that it’s not going to end very well for a food business when it comes out in the subsequent trial that takes place that they’ve been passing on food, albeit unwittingly, to their customers that’s inauthentic. So, put yourself in the position of a person in the food business who’s just discovered that they’re the victim of food crime. Would you want to pick up the phone to me? I’m not so sure you would.
TWILLEY: So the two main tools Andy used in all of his previous policing work were either victims or whistleblowers coming forward. And both of those are in very short supply when it comes to food crime.
MORLING: So what’s left? And the answer is not a lot.
GRABER: But Andy does have some tools at his disposal to fight food crime. And some of them he’s inventing.
TWILLEY: Which we got the inside scoop on. And which we will tell you all about…
GRABER: So Andy’s first idea to fight food crime was to launch something he called Food Crime Confidential.
PHONE OPERATOR: “Can I help you?”
TWILLEY: “Oh, I think I have the wrong number, sorry.”
TWILLEY: Yes, that was me, calling the hotline. I didn’t realize that I’d get a real person. It was a tiny bit embarrassing. Even listening to that is making me cringe.
GRABER: We’ll pretend that it was all a mistake. Shhh. Don’t tell Andy. Anyway, it’s a phone line where people can report food crimes. But the problem is that most callers have been ordinary people, people like you and me, just calling in to say they’re worried they’ve eaten fake food. Or podcasters, like you, Nicky, trying to snag some audio for the show. But really, still, most callers have not yet been the whistleblowers Andy wants to reach.
MORLING: So what we’re doing is we’re producing a sort of a, more a refresh them a complete relaunch at the end of March where we’ll be trying to focus it more on people working in industry. So people within it or working around it or people who are competitors within the industry. So those that own the businesses that are competing, perhaps on an unfair terms with others that are committing crime.
TWILLEY: So fingers crossed, Food Crime Confidential will start yielding some useful information soon. I promise I’ll stop with my prank calls too.
GRABER: We’ve already got the recording. So in addition to the phone line, Andy is using all sorts of conventional policing techniques, and he does have a few cases already underway. They’re top secret of course.
TWILLEY: And Andy has another trick up his sleeve. Computer-aided food crime detection. His idea is to get all sorts of information together about popular, internationally traded crops and the countries they come from. This software would pull together all kinds of data: data about climate, crop disease, political unrest and war, currency fluctuations, logistical bottlenecks—anything that could disrupt the supply of a particular food to the UK and thus raise the price of that food.
GRABER: And if the software shows that the price hasn’t gone up?
MORLING: That tells you that there should be supply side pressures, they’re not feeding through into demand—into increased prices. Therefore how is that demand being met?
TWILLEY: Food crime!
GRABER: Like take oregano. A couple of years ago, there were huge crop failures in India and Turkey—and they’re the main oregano growing countries. So if the price didn’t rise, Andy might get suspicious.
TWILLEY: And he’d be right. Samples showed that a quarter of the oregano on sale in the UK was being cut with something else—usually dried olive leaves.
GRABER: Or take pomegranates. One day they’re no big deal, the next day everyone’s drinking pomegranate juice. But pomegranate trees take two to three years to grow before they bear fruit. So where’d all the new supply come from?
TWILLEY: The data can also point out really obvious things. Like New Zealand bees only make fifteen hundred tons of manuka honey each year but English people buy eighteen hundred tons of it. Something is clearly wrong there.
GRABER: Andy’s massive food crime software system isn’t up and running yet, he’s working on it.
TWILLEY: In fact, it doesn’t even have a name yet.
MORLING: No, it’s funny, I was trying to think of a cool name this morning, not for this interview I hasten to add, but generally. It needs a cool name. It needs people to buy into it. It needs funding.
TWILLEY: Suggestions on a postcard, please. Or, you know, a comment or a tweet.
GRABER: Andy thinks this program could be identifying potential food crimes within a year. Andy’s also partnering with different fraud units around Europe, as well as Interpol, an intergovernmental police organization. And he’s helping out here in the US, too.
SPINK: You know, really,we feel like we’re a group of buddies. You know, we’ve found people that are interested in the topic and we really just get together and try to work out the problems.
TWILLEY: John Spink, over at the Food Fraud Initiative in Michigan—he works closely with Andy. But he’s not a cop, so he takes a little bit of a different approach to the whole issue.
SPINK: So, we focus on prevention, and that leads to understanding incidents and looking at the vulnerabilities, you know, weaknesses that led to someone perceiving they could successfully commit a crime.
GRABER: Even though horsegate didn’t register here as much as in Europe, it had a huge impact on John’s work. Because government agencies and the food industry certainly noticed the multibillion dollar impact the scandal had on the UK.
SPINK: All of a sudden our work got to be that much more important.
TWILLEY: American food companies do not want to see horsegate or similar happen over here. So as part of an industry group—the Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI—they’ve banded together to try to stop the horse before it leaves the barn. Sorry.
GRABER: Since February 2017, GFSI has been requiring all companies to have a food fraud vulnerability assessment and a food fraud prevention plan. So John’s work has really been picking up lately. This is one of the things he does—he consults with companies on these vulnerability assessments and prevention plans.
TWILLEY: One of the areas John has focused on is honey. Because like in Victorian Britain, honey is a popular target of food fraud. Recently, a big name company that uses honey in its products came to John to do one of these vulnerability assessments.
SPINK: So what we did is we talked about this, and the company was really worried that their cost of honey would go up, until we really mentioned to them that their price might be artificially low because they’re buying fraudulent honey. And they started to think about that.
GRABER: So John recommended that they put some tests in place to try to make sure that the honey they were buying was the real deal.
SPINK: And one of the things we saw is that, their next round of bids, a number of suppliers or brokers did not bid on their business. And we think that what it is is that they put these controls in place and the criminals opted out of selling to them because the criminals thought that they might get caught. So that wasn’t a lot of cost. It wasn’t a lot of effort. It wasn’t a lot of manpower hours. But by putting some processes in place that you know really does look like they reduced their vulnerability and increased the strength of the company.
TWILLEY: So those tests John mentioned—we wondered, how would you test honey to see if it was fake. And that’s where Nicola Temple is the expert—she knows her food forensics. So as you may remember from our honey episode, honey is mostly made up of fructose and glucose.
TEMPLE: The easiest way to adulterate honey would be to add some sugar water to the honey. However sugar, cane sugar, is sucrose. So the second that you do that, when you look at the sugars in the honey you see that there’s a huge spike in sucrose. So you would immediately know that it wasn’t pure honey that something had been added. So that’s the easiest thing you can do.
GRABER: One way to get around this problem is to add much cheaper high fructose corn syrup. It has basically the same ratio of fructose and glucose as honey so it’s hard to detect.
TEMPLE: And so you have to then go beyond just looking at the sugar content itself and look at the actual carbon atoms that make up the sugar. And corn is a C4 plant. So all plants are either C3 or C4, that just means that they take different pathways and how they photosynthesize.
TWILLEY: This C3-C4 test is the test that John recommended the company he was working with should use. Basically, sugars have carbon atoms in them. And those carbon atoms are different depending on which plants they were originally made in. And bees mostly forage on plants that make the 3-carbon version of sugar. So if you see C4—the four carbon atom version—chances are your honey is a fake.
GRABER: That worked for John’s company. But that test wouldn’t work for detecting fake versions of super popular manuka honey. Manuka honey comes from New Zealand and it’s supposed to have lots of great health benefits. And it sells for a bundle. But as we said, people around the world buy far more manuka honey than New Zealand bees make.
TEMPLE: Manuka, you could look to potentially pollen grains. But there’s also a very closely related plant, kanuka, which has essentially the same pollen.
TWILLEY: Dammit. What’s left? DNA testing?
TEMPLE: So DNA testing, and in fact DNA barcoding, is being used for a number of reasons. And authenticity testing of food is becoming a more popular use of that. And it can be used to authenticate the plant origins of a honey. So even small samples of honey, so even a milliliter contains enough DNA in there to do a conclusive test to determine which plants the bees have been foraging on.
GRABER: So that’s great news, right? Why don’t we just use DNA testing on everything, and get rid of food fraud all together? Well, no. It’s not that easy. First of all, DNA testing is expensive.
TWILLEY: It doesn’t work on every problem, either. Like, for example if meat is artificially pumped up with water, which is perfectly legal up to a certain percentage—oftentimes the processor will also add a kind of protein powder called hydrolyzed protein. If you inject that into your pumped up chicken breast, the water doesn’t all leak out when it’s cooking. So that is legal. Maybe not nice to eat, but perfectly legal. But the problem is, those protein powders—they could come from beef, or horse, or pig—and you wouldn’t know that from looking at the chicken breast. So you could be eating pig in your chicken, which would be upsetting if you didn’t eat pork for whatever reason.
GRABER: And a DNA test wouldn’t pick it up because when you make pig protein into powder, you chop it up so much that you can’t reliably sequence the DNA anymore. So instead, food scientists had to develop a test based on one that archaeologists use to identify species of ancient bone fragments. The archaeologists found that they could use the collagen protein as a way to fingerprint different species. And it turns out that’s just the type of tissue that was used for the chicken breast powders too.
TEMPLE: Some of these tests do come out of archaeology because they’re very similar in the sense that they’re looking at organic residues that have been extremely degraded in archaeology, they’re degraded through time.
GRABER: And in food they’re degraded through processing!
TWILLEY: Pinning down exactly where things come from—like that Prosecco that was actually Greek sparkling wine—that’s another one that DNA doesn’t really help with. And it’s not like DNA is a smoking gun, even in cases where it does work
TEMPLE: All of these natural substances because they have come from, you know, they have variability, there’s natural variability to all these products. And not only do they have to test those products, they would then have to, you know, do a huge amount of testing to get reference databases of the natural variation of all of those organic substances that are within those products.
TWILLEY: So can we test our way out of fake food?
TEMPLE: No I don’t, I don’t think so. There’s forty thousand products on supermarket shelves. How could they possibly go about testing all of those products?
GRABER: No government in the world has an unlimited budget. We have to make choices.
TEMPLE: And food safety is always going to take precedence because it’s generally what makes people sick. So routine testing for authenticity food safety is going to always take the back seat to food safety testing.
TWILLEY: Some examples of food fraud are food safety issues. But even then, unscrupulous criminals can find ways round the tests.
GRABER: You might have heard of the horrible case of melamine poisoning in China in 2008—it doesn’t feel that long ago, because it was really shocking. Criminals added melamine to milk and infant formula, and melamine can be toxic. 300,000 babies were affected, six babies died.
SPINK: And so what happened was that these brilliant fraudster criminals, they looked at the tests for quality. In the U.S. milk is sold by fat content, in China it’s sold by protein content. So high protein milk was worth more than low protein milk. So if they sprinkled in some melamine, it would deceive the tests and make it look like it was higher quality. Because the tests for protein are not exactly protein tests. They look for a specific molecule, nitrogen molecule, that is present in the same amounts in protein. So it happens that melamine has a similar molecule that deceives those tests.
TWILLEY: In other words, the fraudsters understood how to cheat.
TEMPLE: If these sophisticated criminals understand the testing environment, then they are in many cases able to sort of tweak it and get around it. But it’s sort of a, it’s a cat and mouse game. So once the enforcement agencies understand that that’s what’s happening, then they sort of up their game on the testing side. But it is definitely a game of cat and mouse in terms of the adulteration becoming more sophisticated in response to the testing becoming more sophisticated.
TWILLEY: Even if you admire the cleverness of this particular food fraud, it’s hard not to be disgusted by anyone who would poison babies.
TEMPLE: I mean, to put melamine powder into infant milk—I mean, why would, how can you mess around with infants? To me that’s just an unheard of and hideous, hideous crime.
GRABER: But not all food criminals are that unscrupulous. Some are, of course.
TEMPLE: There are some definite crime organized crime units that are out there to make a huge amount of money. And I also think that there are people who are—who see themselves either as problem solvers, so you know someone who—you know a retailer is asking for X amount of ground beef, and they don’t have it. And they manage to find someone who’s willing to give them a good deal, knowing that it might be a bit sketchy. But it means that they filled that orders, so they’ve, you know, they’ve solved the problem and maybe just don’t want to ask questions just because they are concerned about the answer. And then people who are genuinely pushed into perhaps unscrupulous behavior, because they’re at their wit’s end. So if—I use an example of an olive grower who down the road, their neighbor is adulterating their olive oil with a cheaper oil and underselling them. So you know at some point it’s like, okay, I’m going to lose my family business and not be able to support my family. Or do I, you know, join the crowd and go along and do what they’re doing?
TWILLEY: So that’s why food fraud happens—there’s a whole range of reasons people might commit food fraud. But what about the people who get hurt by food fraud—the victims.
GRABER: There’s a whole range of victims of food crime, too. Obviously the dead infants in China was shocking and horrific. And there have been examples of other fatalities caused by swapping in peanut powder for almond powder in curries in the UK. Someone died of an allergic reaction.
TWILLEY: But there are other more subtle harms. Like for example if you were Muslim or Jewish and you ate one of those chicken breasts with pig protein powder injected—well, that would be a huge problem for you.
GRABER: And what if you’re a food producer trying to do the right thing? Like the olive oil producer Nicola mentioned earlier, who’s making real extra virgin olive oil and your neighbor is adulterating it? You’re getting undercut, and you might not be able to stay in business. There’s real economic harm.
TWILLEY: And to go back to horsegate—obviously, swapping horse for beef is not a threat to anyone’s health. People eat horse all over the world. I ate horse aged 13 when my French exchange family gave it to me for dinner and I am still alive. But John’s argument is, there may not be a threat, but there is a vulnerability.
SPINK: Meaning that if the criminals are putting in this horsemeat into the beef, they put in good horse meat now and it stayed at the right temperatures. But why did they? It’s kind of illogical for the criminals to follow good manufacturing practices, you know, very often. But, and that’s the thing is, we can’t monitor what they did.
GRABER: Each of our guests this episode takes a slightly different approach to fighting food fraud. Andy’s a cop, he’s policing the issue. Nicola told us about the role of testing. John thinks tests are most useful to help prevent food fraud before it even starts.
TWILLEY: And Bee Wilson looks back to history for its lessons.
WILSON: So before the industrial age, I mean one of the most basic functions of government anywhere, in Britain or anywhere, was to protect the food supply. Governments once saw that as part of their fundamental duty.
TWILLEY: But Bee doesn’t have a lot of faith that today’s governments will step up.
WILSON: It’s also the case that every time this scandal happens, when they’re really, really bad and governments are forced to act, they’ll do something. But the governments are always somehow scared of treading on the toes of industry, of damaging jobs of people in the food industry, of going too far to regulate. And then they always somehow come short of doing what they ought to do.
GRABER: Bee says that food fraud has always been with us and always will.
WILSON: Because human greed is a constant. And also people wanting to buy food for a cheaper price is a constant. It’s possible to imagine a society in which people more or less eliminated food fraud through the right kind of economic and government policies. But it just doesn’t seem very probable that any of those moves are going to be made any time soon.
MORLING: One cannot design out fraud in its entirety. They’ll always be dishonest people within any industry. I don’t think they’re represented anymore within the food industry than they are within say the banking industry or the insurance industry or even the automotive industry. So fraud is present in every sector, in every industry. I think the difficulty was we didn’t recognize it was present in the food industry until 2013. Certainly not in the UK.
TWILLEY: Andy agrees with Bee that food fraud is not going to go away anytime soon. But his reasoning is slightly different.
MORLING: We as consumers in 2017 want to try a variety of different foods from around the world, we want to try things that are different, we want to have premium ingredients from countries that we can’t grow in our own country. You know, that’s something that we can’t turn back the clock. These things are always going with us now. This is something that is—you know, the genie is out of the bag.
GRABER: It’s true, we love chocolate and coffee and tea and all sorts of products that we’ve come to depend on, but that certainly aren’t local. I don’t think I could live without tea and chocolate. Still, there are ways to opt out of this major complicated food web. When possible, you can buy either food products that are made locally, or from stores and people you trust who really want to make sure that they get your repeat business.
TWILLEY: Anything you can do to shorten the food chain makes sense. A nice hot cup of Swiss Miss, for example—that contains ingredients from 31 different companies and close to that many countries. All those transactions and middlemen and processing and global shipping: it’s the perfect environment for food criminals to operate.
SPINK: The other part of the consumer role is advocacy and of emphasizing that we want to have the bad actors held accountable.
TWILLEY: All that outrage—that does make some kind of difference. And then there’s just basic common sense.
MORLING: If something looks too good to be true it probably is, you know, and not to, you know, if they’re being offered a case of champagne for five pounds or something, there’s something potentially wrong with that case of champagne.
GRABER: We can also sort of be a human version of Andy’s computer fraud detection system. Like, you know, coconut water became insanely popular practically overnight, and coconut trees take six to ten years to grow.
TWILLEY: Yet another reason to be skeptical of whatever the latest superfood silliness is. Ultimately, there’s one pretty fun way to fight food fraud. And it’s by eating good food. And drinking good wine.
WILSON:There was a wine expert called Cyrus Redding who in 1833 said the best test against adulterated wine is a perfect acquaintance with that which is good. And he was thinking about British consumers whose palates had been so numbed by drinking horrible fake port that they couldn’t tell real claret when they tasted it. But I think it applies much more widely than just wine. I think if you really really know with all of your senses what good food should taste like, what it should look like, then you’re much safer against all of these fake versions.
GRABER: Nicola compares it to scientific testing—but again, the human version. Using your senses rather than lab-based chemical tests.
TEMPLE: And just as with all of this scientific testing, you do a test and you compare it to a database of this natural variation. So if we are constantly as humans sort of eating crap, then our database is filled with crap, for lack of a better word. And so if you don’t sort of fill our own personal databases with an understanding of what true good food should taste and smell like, then it’s going to be much harder to figure out when we’re being swindled.
TWILLEY: So we do have tools to fight food fraud. We are not completely powerless. And the other thing is, the majority of our food supply is not fake. John stressed that to us. And so did Andy.
MORLING: So I would say to consumers, enjoy your food because by and large, in the UK at least it is very very safe, very very authentic. So you don’t need to fear it but you just need to be aware of it. And that’s the difference.
GRABER: Like Andy says, we do still need to care about food fraud. Through food crime, we can see parts of our food system we’d honestly rather not look at.
TWILLEY: The long supply chains that take food half way round the world and back. The low profit margins that make growers and producers desperate. The processing that is legal—but offers more opportunities for fraud to take place. The ugly stuff that makes our food cheap and global.
GRABER: Plus, there’s something about food that’s just more intimate than the other types of fraud like banking or insurance or automotive fraud. We eat food. We bring it into our bodies.
MORLING: Food is very visceral, isn’t it? Food is something we all feel very personally. We all have to consume food and we place a great deal of trust in the people that bring that food from the farm to our our fork. And that trust is very important for the whole industry to work.
GRABER: I know, I know, we didn’t cover that story you’re dying to hear. What about fish and DNA sampling and fake sushi? What about fake olive oil?
TWILLEY: But you know what’s great? We get to come back and do entire episodes on those things in the future. Thanks this episode to Bee Wilson, whose book, Swindled, is a fantastically fun and horrifying read.
GRABER: And also to Nicola Temple — her book is called Sorting the Beef from the Bull and we have links to both on our website.
TWILLEY: And finally thanks to John Spink and especially to Andy Morling. I really apologize for prank-calling the Food Crime Confidential hotline.
GRABER: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a brand new episode all about the humble peanut. Peanuts will save the world! No, wait, peanuts will kill us! Plus, lots of PB&J.
TWILLEY: Till next time!