Food fraud is a thing. And it's almost certainly happened to you


You might be one of those people who assume that if you buy milk or maple syrup or fruit juice at the supermarket, that's exactly what you're getting. Think again.

Food fraud — the practice of altering food products in one way or another with the goal of increasing profit margins — is becoming a more common occurrence around the world, and those who perpetrate it are becoming more sophisticated.

A 2010 study suggested food fraud is worth some $15 billion worldwide — or a tenth of the entire global market.

"I would say that very few people have not been victims of food fraud in one way or another," says Sébastien Rioux, a University of Montreal professor and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Food and Wellbeing. "Mislabeling, country or origin, weight, volume...I think everybody has heard about repackaging ground beef, for instance, to change the expiry date."

Rioux cites honey as a prime example of the kind of things that can be done to misrepresent a food product. "There are just not enough bees to produce what we eat in a year. We know there are some people are 'cutting' the honey with some sort of liquid sugar," he says. "The level of sophistication is so high that you can reproduce the smell, the texture, the look of it. People will not really detect food frauds in what they eat, because those practices are meant to be undetected."

Products such as maple syrup, olive oil, fruit juice and even milk are among some of the other products that are most susceptible to being diluted for profit. Examples of misrepresentation in the marketplace include changing expiry dates on products, selling fish or meat that isn't what's being advertised, and passing products off as being certified organic when they haven't been.

It's next to impossible for the average consumer to protect against being short-changed by food producers or distributors. Part of the problem, Rioux says, is there isn't the kinds of food inspections that there should be in Canada.

"The Harper government didn't really believe in independent inspections, and progressively shifted the responsibility of checking food quality to the food industry." Rioux says. "Where money is involved, people will try to cheat and make more money. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has to be much stronger. The Trudeau government has been reinvesting, but more needs to be done."

Meanwhile, he also suggests that the further away a food product comes from, the more middlemen will be involved in handling the product before it gets to the shelves at your local supermarket — which would, of course, increase the risk that the product may be tampered with.