What's that in your mouth? Traceability the key to fighting food fraud

29 August 2016 - 10:05 By Wendy Knowler
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Experts suggest cutting back on meat but not necessarily cutting it out completely.
Experts suggest cutting back on meat but not necessarily cutting it out completely.
Image: AFP Relaxnews ©Vid/shutterstock.com

Within hours of the International Union of Science and Technology's World Congress ending in Dublin last week, news broke of yet another UK horse meat scandal.

Three men - two Brits and a Dane - are accused of conspiring to sell horse meat as beef.

The beef-that's-actually-horse scandal first exploded in Europe in early 2013, when horse DNA was found in frozen burgers in several British and Irish supermarkets, shortly after our own donkey meat scandal.

Almost 70% of a sample of 139 processed meat products bought from butcheries across South Africa were found in DNA tests to contain undeclared species including, most shockingly, donkey, in one KwaZulu-Natal case.

"Clearly, our consumers cannot generally accept that the meat products they buy are correctly labelled," said Dr Donna-Maree Cawthorn, co-author of the study, which was published in the international Food Control journal at the time.

And two local restaurants known for serving game were found to be passing off pork as warthog.

Food fraud - the deliberate manipulation, substitution or mislabelling of food - was a hot issue at the congress. Much was said of the infamous Chinese melamine-in-infant-formula scam, and fish species substitution, which is also a problem in South Africa.

At the weekend, Food Standards Scotland launched a 24-hour food fraud hotline to help regulators and the police tackle criminal activity in the food supply chain, and protect that country's food reputation overseas.

And England launched a similar initiative in June, calling it Food Crime Confidential.

South Africa could do with something similar - I'm pretty sure some of the "well-priced" honey on our shelves is not 100% honey, for starters - but co-operation between the various government departments overseeing food, and other industry stakeholders, is severely lacking.

And given the investment of time and money that DNA and other laboratory testing requires, it is done sporadically, making food fraud a low-risk activity.

In his presentation at the congress, Tejas Bhatt, director of the Institute of Food Technologists' Global Food Traceability centre in Washington, said while it was not feasible or practical to test all food, farm-to-fork traceability would offer consumers meaningful protection against substitution.

"Traceability tells you where or how the problem happened," he said.

"Whereas electronic goods were once the main target of cargo thieves, today it's food," Bhatt said.

But a traceability system would flag a problem if a shipment took longer than expected to arrive, for example, he said.

"It will allow food manufacturers to verify that their product was not interfered with along the way."

Traceability is going to be the next big thing in food safety, Bhatt said.

"There's going to be a lot of change in the next three to five years.

"We need to learn from the pharmaceutical, automotive and banking industries, enabling a seamless flow of information across supply chains."

Another major theme of the congress was eliminating food waste. It is estimated that a staggering 30% to 40% of food is wasted, worldwide. Interestingly, in developing countries, most of that waste occurs post-harvest through poor transport and storage methods, while in developed countries it is due to consumers who don't understand expiry dates throwing out food that's still perfectly good to eat.

A best-before date has nothing to do with food safety, only the quality of the food - so the biscuits may be softer and taste less fresh after their best-before date, but they won't harm you.

Use-by dates, on the other hand - on perishables such as meat - are about food safety, so don't mess with those.

Wendy's trip to Dublin was funded by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, as a member of its steering committee.


AS A consumer journalist I've dealt with many food "contaminant" cases - everything from a bolt that fell out of a supermarket bakery's mixer and got embedded in a hot cross bun to a gecko baked into a bag of muesli.

Often, it must be said, consumers have a somewhat fanciful notion about how such foreign objects can harm them.

Last week I heard from two consumers who claimed to have suffered extreme physical reactions to food contamination.

"Iris" wanted my advice regarding injested (sic) coffee with fly in jar. "I've been ill for four weeks now," she said. "My throat is infected."

Given that she had attached to her e-mail a photo of the coffee jar with the dead fly lying next to it, I asked how it had managed to infect her throat. She stopped e-mailing me after that.

"Abi" wrote to say that her daughter had been complaining of "unbearable pain" in her stomach. She had taken her to the doctor and given her "different types" of medication.

The cause was a mystery until she spotted "webs of some sort" at the bottom of a tin of Milo.

But when she called Nestlé's call centre to complain, she was "only" offered a refund of the cost of a tin of Milo, and R20 extra in the form of a voucher to be used at Pick n Pay.

"The food industry has become so insensitive and cheap," she said. "In previous years, the consumer would be contacted and apologised to, and sent a hamper."

Responding, a Nestlé spokesman said "all the possibilities of infestation" were explained to Abi.

"A R60 discount voucher was subsequently sent, which seems to be what the consumer is more upset about."

As for the allegation that the Milo made the child sick, she said the company had requested a doctor's note to confirm this.

"All the necessary investigations will be done upon receipt," she said. And the empty tin would be collected.

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