April 14, 2024


Travel Adventure

Chemists on the trail of the food fraud

6 min read

“Fraud is infinite in variety,” British Lord Edward Macnaghten once said in a House of Lords hearing.  “Sometimes it is audacious and unblushing; sometimes…it is modest and retiring…”

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of food, where the safety, wholesomeness, and value of what we eat is largely a matter of trust between customer, supplier, and government overseers. Most of us don’t think much about it, but like doping in sports, preventing the sale of fake food is an endless battle between those trying to prevent it and those looking to end-run the defenses.

America, for example, is currently investigating a fraud in which at least three brands of cinnamon/apple snacks appear to have been deliberately contaminated with cinnamon dosed with up to 5110 parts per million (that’s 0.5 per cent) lead. And it wasn’t done by terrorists or saboteurs. Instead, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it was done by an Ecuadoran cinnamon processor. US and Ecuadoran officials have declined to state a motive, but elevated levels of chromium were also found—interesting because there is a history of lead chromate dye being used in turmeric to make it brighter yellow and therefore more valuable. Cinnamon is close enough to the same color to raise the question whether the motive, here, was the same.

Not that all food frauds are as potentially deadly as this one. Most threaten little but our wallets and taste buds. Maple syrup might be diluted with corn syrup; olive oil mixed with vegetable oil; rockfish passed off as red snapper. Unless you’re allergic to the substituted ingredient, you aren’t going to wind up hospitalized.

Efforts to pass off non-edible pine seeds as pine nuts does threaten people’s taste buds a little more directly than simply depriving them of an expected treat. If you are unfortunate enough to get a batch of these, the result can be a nasty metallic taste the FDA has dubbed “pine mouth.” It can last for weeks, but eventually passes with no permanent effects.

Scientists and regulators break such frauds into categories ranging from dilution, substitution, and mislabeling to “unapproved enhancements”—a fancy way of saying, “You really don’t want to eat this.” But generically, they are all called adulteration, and are as old as the hills.

In Greek and Roman times, vintners masked the taste of inferior wine by doctoring it with everything from lead to sea salt. In medieval England, pepper was diluted with charcoal. In early Victorian England, bread was dosed with alum, chalk, bone meal, and heaven knows what else in order to increase its weight and make it look whiter and therefore higher grade.


Other frauds of that era, says Michelangelo Anastassiades, head of one of the European Union’s food-testing laboratories, included the use of lead chromate or nitrobenzene to create fake egg content in noodles and pastries and the addition of formaldehyde and borax to milk to extend its shelf life. The latter, he adds, was a particularly serious problem because at the time, sixty percent of infant fatalities were due to diarrhea. These contaminants, plus a tendency to dilute milk with water, undoubtedly played major roles.

Michelangelo Anastassiades

In the US, a big issue was honey. One of the more complex frauds, says food writer Bee Wilson in her book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, was a scheme to sell fake honey in artificial honeycombs capped with paraffin. The tipoff? The person who came up with the idea was brazen enough to patent the machine that did it.

One of the first governmental efforts to fight this came all the way back in 1202, when King John of England proclaimed the Assize of Bread, which, among other things, prohibited the adulteration of bread with such ingredients as peas or beans.  Traces of that rule linger today; the USFDA has a “standard of identity” for bread that strictly limits the ingredients it can contain. Zucchini bread might be a great summer treat, but don’t try to pawn it off as bread without mentioning the zucchini.

Unless someone was trying to pass off an obviously green loaf as wheat bread, or was caught in the act of adding bean flour to the dough, enforcing such standards in 1202 must have been difficult. But that changed with the scientific revolution.


Food fraud fills the stomach and empties the wallet

In 1820, German chemist Friedrich Accum wrote a book called A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons. It was a major warning to cheaters, because it not only cataloged cheats, but included methods for detecting them. We can catch you, Accum was basically telling the adulterers. In fact, in his preface, he explicitly said the methods of detection he was describing were explained “in the plainest language,” so they could “be performed by persons unacquainted with chemical science.”

Accum’s approach didn’t really get rolling until the latter half of the 19th Century, but in 1860, Anastassiades says, the UK enacted the first modern food and drug law. Germany followed in 1879, and in 1898, a US-based professional association of analytical chemists called Association of Official Agricultural Chemists  decided to take a hard look at foods and food ingredients.

Since then, many frauds have become increasingly detectable. Rockfish for red snapper can be detected by a DNA test. Ditto for inedible pine seeds masquerading as pine nuts. Lead in cinnamon is easy to find, once you are alert to the need to look for it.

But food fraud gets ever more sophisticated, and it really is a race between the crooks and the people trying to catch them. A case in point is melamine.

Melamine is an industrial chemical with a number of uses, none of which involve being a food additive. But in 2007 it appeared in pet food from China. But a year later, it popped up again, in powdered infant formula. There were dead kids, and 54,000 very sick kids…

Melamine has been described as a synthetic amino acid, but that’s not accurate. Instead, it’s a compound whose chemical formula, C₃H₆N₆, makes it extremely rich in nitrogen. “Melamine is 67 percent by weight, nitrogen,” says James Coughlin, an Orange County, California food-safety consultant.

That’s important because the fraudsters realized they could use it to fool lab tests designed to measure protein content simply by measuring the amount of nitrogen in the product. “It’s a nitrogen bomb,” Coughlin says. The fraudsters’ thinking, he says, “[Was] like, ‘What can we intentionally contaminate these things with that will give a higher test for nitrogen?’”

Scientists, regulators, and the food industry (led in part by the New Zealand dairy industry) quickly joined forces to develop a new analytical method that would not be fooled by melamine. But, just as Accum’s 1820 treatise on the detection of food fraud was a shot over the bow of the cheaters, warning them that good analytical chemistry could be ferret them out, the melamine scare was return fire from the fraudsters, saying “not always.”

Coughlin describes it as the first time sophisticated chemists used high-tech methods to intentionally adulterate foods. It probably won’t be the last. Because Lord Mcnaughton was right: fraud is indeed infinite in its complexity, and fighting it will always be a battle between the regulators and the cutting-edge cheats.

But at least we know it’s unlikely that today’s wine will be dosed with lead, or pepper will be diluted with charcoal. Because once one fraud is unmasked and tests to prevent it are developed, the fraudsters are forced to move on to something new.


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