Food fraud costs the UK over £400m every year

From adding fillers such as chalk to a loaf of bread to claiming a chicken is free range when it has spent its entire life in a cage, food fraud is widespread. Can anything be done about it?

In the 1850s, a series of groundbreaking experiments by a chemist named Arthur Hassall uncovered some disturbing facts about Victorian food. Children’s sweets were regularly dyed with lead, mashed potato and chalk were added to bread to bulk it up and it was routinely whitened with alum, and pickles were dyed green with copper. In short, food adulteration was pervasive.

But food fraud remains a part of modern life. It is, according to the author of a new report, the ‘crime in our baskets’.

It is so widespread in the UK food and drinks industry that it costs the country as much as £424m a year, with customers often paying far more for products than they are worth.

The report suggests that fraud occurs at every stage of the supply chain, with suppliers, producers and retailers substituting ingredients, such as donkey for beef or horse for chicken. They also claim food is organic when it isn’t and packaging often exaggerates the weight of food it contains.

Researchers found lower grade flour than advertised used to make bread and fillers such as chalk are added. Claiming a chicken is free range when it has spent its life in a cage is another way of hiking up prices. Other types of fraud include using cheap cheese substitutes on pizzas or charging high prices for honey wrongly labelled as ‘manuka‘.

As a result, food costs far more than it should. The consumer ultimately pays for this fraud. It is estimated that it contributes on average 5p to the cost of a £1 loaf of white bread, 11p to a £2 box of half a dozen eggs, and 10p for potatoes costing £1.75.

Food fraud has been on the political agenda for some time, particularly after last year’s horse meat scandal, which caused an international outcry. In response, the government has promised to set up a national food crime unit to protect the industry from organised criminal gangs, who see food fraud as more lucrative than trafficking drugs, and who face lighter sentences if caught.

Chalk and cheese

Food crime is now dangerously common, with price wars between supermarkets and lax controls adding to the problem. Last year’s horse meat scandal shows just how little we know about the food we eat. If it continues, it could pose a real health risk. We should be less trusting of the food we buy and learn to grow and cook our own food instead.

Others say we’ve never had it so good when it comes to cheap, easily available food. The problem is not as bad as in other countries, like China, where there are regular health scares over contaminated food, including recycled cooking oil, bleached rice and cancer-causing hormones added to beansprouts. We should feel lucky we have enough safe food to eat.

You Decide

  1. If food tastes good and is relatively cheap and healthy, does it matter whether food labels and prices are misleading?
  2. Are consumer demands, in part, to blame for food fraud?

Activities

  1. If fraud contributes 9p to the cost of a £1.70 block of butter, 3p to the cost of a 49p lettuce, and 5p to the cost of a £1 loaf of bread and you buy two blocks of butter, five lettuces and three loaves, work out how much fraud has cost you.
  2. Draw a cartoon to illustrate this story.

Some People Say...

“As long as it's not dangerous and the food tastes good, who cares if food fraud is taking place.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is terrible. Someone should be held to account.
That’s true, but who? Is it profit-driven supermarkets, at war with each other for customers, incompetent officials and the police not taking the issue seriously enough, or the criminal gangs looking to profit from our dinner plates? Or perhaps it’s all of us, as consumers, who demand cheap food. Thinking about where our food comes from and how it affects the planet deserves more attention.
Is food fraud dangerous?
Last year’s horse meat scandal luckily posed few health risks, yet evidence of fraud uncovered since then, such as cases where allergenic peanuts have been substituted for ground almonds, is worrying. Even if the food is not a health risk, customers have a right to know what they are eating, and not be cheated on price.

Word Watch

Arthur Hassall
Hassall showed that adulteration was the rule rather than the exception and he came to be recognised as an authority on the matter. He was mentioned in Charles Kingsley’s famous children’s book, ‘The Water Babies’, published in 1863.
Alum
A chemical compound that makes bread appear whiter.
Report
The report ‘Minimising Fraud and Maximising Value in the UK Food and Drink Sector 2014’, was produced by PKF Littlejohn and the University of Portsmouth.
Manuka
Ten thousand tons of ‘manuka’ honey are sold worldwide each year, yet only 1,700 tons of it are produced.
Horse meat scandal
It emerged in January 2013 when Irish food inspectors found horsemeat in frozen beef burgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK, and sold by a number of UK supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl.
Lax controls
Local authority enforcement services have dramatically decreased. The number of council public health laboratories – vital for detecting food fraud – has fallen from 10 to six since 2010, while the numbers of trading standards officers have fallen by 27% since 2009.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.