MICHIGAN State University (MSU) has not only defined the term "food fraud," but the university is also helping the U.S. and other countries establish strategies to fight it.
In the current issue of Food Chemistry Journal, the MSU research team introduced the topic of food fraud and provided a definition, with translations available in Russian, Korean and Chinese. The paper also tackles a system-wide focus that could lead to prevention.
"Our article is a translation by experts in their countries and includes an interpretation to address the emerging issue in their country," said John Spink, director of MSU's Food Fraud Initiative, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author on the paper. "The co-authors are champions for food fraud prevention around the world."
Food fraud is defined as intentionally using deception for economic gain involving food, according to Spink.
In 2013, MSU launched the Food Fraud Initiative and has been helping governments, manufacturers and retailers that have been deceived. Recent examples include European stores unintentionally selling beef tainted with horse meat, pet foods containing melamine filler in lieu of whey protein — a substitution that proved deadly for many pets — and Chinese Wal-Mart stores mistakenly including fox meat in their offerings of donkey meat.
Donkey meat is standard fare in northern China. While this tainted meat scandal may have happened in an isolated area, Wal-Mart felt the negative economic impact around the globe, Spink said.
"It's legal for Wal-Mart and other stores to sell donkey meat in rural northern China, which is sold by many stores there," he said. However, "when the news broke of this species swapping, the story went viral. Crises like these can have a catastrophic effect on companies, governments and consumer confidence."
Food fraud isn't limited to food ingredients, though. Other examples include unauthorized or unsanitary labeling, such as up-labeling products, origin laundering and expiration date code tampering, according to the researchers.
For example, two owners of a nationwide egg company were sentenced April 14 to three months in jail after pleading guilty in connection to the distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce.
Federal health officials linked 1,939 illnesses to the 2010 salmonella outbreak and estimated that up to 56,000 people may have gotten sick because of it. The company agreed to pay $6.8 million in fines for selling old eggs with false labels and contaminated products. Additionally, the company pleaded guilty to bribing a federal inspector.
Normally, surplus eggs are sold at half-price to a breaker facility, which sanitizes the eggs and turns them into a liquid product. In order to avoid the discount for extra eggs, the company relabeled old eggs so it could sell them to the public.
Beginning around January 2006 and continuing through Aug. 12, 2010, company employees affixed labels to egg shipments to indicate false expiration dates with the intent to mislead state regulators and retail egg customers regarding the true age of the eggs. Occasionally, personnel did not put any processing or corresponding expiration dates on the eggs when they were processed.
The eggs would be kept in storage for several days or up to several weeks. Then, just prior to shipping the eggs, personnel labeled the eggs with false processing dates.
To aid in preventing any form of food fraud, Spink and Doug Moyer, MSU public health professor and another co-author, established an unbiased and peer-reviewed academic definition. The goal is not simply to define and detect food fraud but also to adjust entire food supply chains to focus on prevention, Spink said.
"For governments to begin addressing the issue, they needed a credible source they could reference — an academic source rather than a food association that could potentially have biased views," he said. "Already, we're collaborating with many other countries and serving as members on their food fraud teams. MSU is leading the world down the food fraud prevention path."
Getting involved in the issue at the earliest stage has established MSU as one of the key sources for government agencies and company leaders, Spink added. The next phase of this research will be to put these new laws and guidelines into practice.
MSU comes up as one of the top references when searching the term "food fraud" on Google.
In the last month, representatives from the departments of food and agriculture in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have met with Spink to establish guidelines to fight food fraud in their nations.
Wal-Mart, looking to recover from its own scandal, also helped sponsor a food fraud course led by MSU that was translated into Mandarin, Spink said.
"We've built credibility, and government agencies and Fortune 500 companies are continuing to reach out to us for guidance," he said. "Our research isn't being shelved, either. It's reaching people, and it's already having a positive impact — one that we'll certainly build on in the coming years."