Food Fraud: All We Need to Know

Representational Photo

By Inam-ul-Allah Mir

FOOD contamination caused by counterfeit and adulterated ingredients is generally not easy to detect. Food fraud incidents in India had risen up from year 2018. Now, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the occurrence of food fraud has skyrocketed alarmingly across the length and breadth of the country.

Worldwide, the scale of food fraud is estimated to be around $50 billion a year — a massive industry and one that sets out to cheat and deceive consumers and businesses alike.

For the past few months, food safety and quality control experts across the globe have been cautioning that the COVID pandemic will be an enormous opportunity for those who engage in this form of cheating to upscale their operations. These warnings have come at a time when many systems responsible for checking, inspecting, auditing and testing supply chains around the world have either been greatly scaled back or totally collapsed. Furthermore, food companies are more preoccupied with trying to ensure an adequate food supply, rather than confirming their suppliers are all delivering genuine and authentic food.

Food fraud is the act of purposely altering, misrepresenting, mislabelling, substituting or tampering with any food product at any point along the farm–to–table food supply chain. Fraud can occur in the raw material, in an ingredient, in the final product or even in the food’s packaging.

The top ten foods where fraud is fairly common include: Milk, Olive Oil, Honey, Saffron, Spices like turmeric, coffee, khoya & chhena, Ice creams, Vanilla extract and vegetable oils.

Milk is possibly one of the easiest targets. This is precisely why we have hundreds of cases where the food authorities or independent food testing agencies have found milk to be adulterated across India and particularly in J&K.

As per the report published in Economic Times on Sept 05, 2018,  68% milk and milk products in India are not as per FSSAI standard. According to the National dairy development board statistics, milk production in 2018-19 was 187.7 million tonnes and per capita availability was 394 gm/day which was 22% of that year’s global total milk production of 843 million tonnes, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Milk output grew 5% over 2017 levels in India. This growth is expected to sustain in the coming years.  NITI Aayog (think-tank of government of India) says India will produce 300 million tonnes of milk by 2022.

In the Union territory of J&K, Food safety department recently conducted a drive to check quality of milk being supplied to consumers in summer capital wherein milk samples were lifted from the market for analysis. Adulteration of milk was found to be a big challenge for both, the regulator as well as the consumer.

Common parameters that are checked to evaluate milk quality are: fat percentage, SNF (Solid-not-Fat) percentage, protein content and freezing point. Adulterants are added in milk to increase these parameters, thereby increasing the milk quality in a deceitful way which in turn promote food safety risks.

Starch, Sulfate salts, Urea and Common salts are added to increase solid-not-fat (SNF). Urea, being a natural constituent of raw milk, has a maximum limit imposed by FSS Act 2006 and PFA (Prevention of Food Adulteration) Rules 1955 which should be 70 mg/100 ml. Commercial urea is added to milk to increase non-protein nitrogen content. Ammonium sulphate is added to increase the lactometer reading by maintaining the density of diluted milk. Formalin, Salicylic acid, Benzoic acid and Hydrogen peroxide act as preservatives and increase the shelf life of the milk. Detergents are added to emulsify and dissolve the oil in water giving a frothy solution, which is the desired characteristics of milk.

We as consumer, need to stay alert and aware. To this end, the Detect Adulteration Rapid Test (DART) booklet launched by FSSAI has published a compilation of quick common tests for detection of food adulterants at household level to generate awareness among the consumers.

To detect water in milk: Put a drop of milk on a polished slanting surface. Pure milk either stays or flows slowly leaving a white trail behind. Milk adulterated with water will flow immediately without leaving a mark

To detect detergent in milk: Take 5 to 10ml of sample with an equal amount of water. Shake the contents thoroughly. If milk is adulterated with detergent, it forms dense lather. Pure milk will only form a very thin foam layer due to agitation.

For detection of starch in milk and milk products: Boil 2-3 ml of milk with 5ml of water. Cool and add 2-3 drops of tincture of iodine. Formation of blue color will indicate the presence of starch.

Despite the fact that financial gain is considered to be one of the major reasons for milk adulteration; inadequate supply for increasing population all over India has motivated companies for indulging in this unscrupulous practice. This calls for combined efforts from food scientists, food safety specialists, quality analysts and the regulatory bodies through development, implementation and dissemination of better techniques for the detection of milk and other food adulteration.

Besides this, awareness and access to information can play vital role in urban, sub-urban and rural areas to overcome this issue.

  • Writer is currently working as a Food Safety & Quality Assurance Officer for a Bahrain based Food Company holding franchise of Starbucks and COSTA Coffee

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