Day 6

The big cash in counterfeit food: why you might not be eating what you think you're eating

Fake food is turning up everywhere, from painted olives to fertilizer-tainted sugar. And organized criminals are a big force behind it. Why? Brent asks food integrity expert Chris Elliott.

As consumers, we are used to being on the lookout for counterfeit products: watches, clothing, jewelry, and so on.

But if you think it's limited to hard goods, take a good hard look in your pantry. Counterfeit food is becoming more common. And organized crime has latched onto phony food as the latest cash cow, if you pardon the pun. This week, Interpol announced its largest seizure of counterfeit food and drink ever: more than 10,000 tonnes of fake food and one million litres of fake drink. The international policing agency says the goal of the operation, involving 57 countries, was to disrupt criminal organizations around the world. Police in those countries seized everything from everything from sugar cut with fertilizer to liquor mixed with cheaper ingredients

Chris Elliott is the founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University in Belfast, and is an expert on food integrity.

And if you wonder how painted olives, for example, could be more lucrative than heroin for mobsters, Elliot points out that the world grocery trade is expected to reach $12 trillion in the next couple of years. Food fraud is suspected in five to 10 per cent of the trade. "So 5 to ten per cent of 12 trillion dollars is a lot of money," Elliot tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

It's also that the production of food is such a multinational, complicated process that allows organized crime so many opportunities. "You can interfere with the production, you can interfere with the transportation, you can interfere with the processing, the more steps there are between the food being harvested and us eating it gives criminals more opportunities."

According Elliott's research, the Italian mafia has been implicated in the distribution of fake olive oil and high-end cheeses.

The drug cartels in Central America are also getting involved.

"They buy large quantities of very low grade food materials and re-label them to be the very high value products on the supermarket shelves," he says. In most cases, the supermarkets themselves aren't even aware they're selling counterfeit products.

Big crime syndicates are even buying entire food processing companies, according to Elliott. During the daytime they're making the real food products, and at night they're producing counterfeit goods. "They call it the double-shift," Elliott says.

(AP Photo/Matthew Mead) (The Associated Press)

The counterfeit food process is also attractive because the penalties associated with being caught are trivial compared with drug trafficking or human smuggling. "The most drastic sentences are between one and two years," Elliott says of the typical penalties for food fraud in Europe.

The effects of counterfeit food are felt around the world. In Canada a year ago, an investigation showed that cumin had been contaminated with peanut shells, a serious risk to anyone with a peanut allergy.

Herbs and spices are a particular target, Elliott points out. Criminals will add industrial dyes to brighten the colours, which makes them appear more attractive. But the dyes are often poisonous.

Elliott also says fraudsters are starting to fake local foods, with the best example being that of Manuka honey.The honey, produced exclusively in New Zealand, is considered the best-tasting in the world - and carries a price tag to match. But according to one study, "it turned out that there was more Manuka honey being sold in the United Kingdom alone than was being produced in the entire country of New Zealand," he says.

So what's a grocery consumer to do? The advice Elliot gives is surprisingly familiar:

"What I do is buy as much local produce as possible, because it comes from very, very simple supply chains."