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Food for fraud

I always thought that food inflation (rising food prices) was caused by a lack of availability of food or by increases in prices of raw materials and fuels used in the production of food. But there is another side to it.

Recently, Serbia has been rocked by a milk scandal. Much has been written about it already. Serbia should brace itself for more cases like this because drought will increase due to climate change and this will bring the danger of infections and vector borne diseases.

In the meanwhile, the European Union has been rocked by a food scandal involving horsemeat which was processed and sold in end products, claiming them to be beef. Here is a link that gives an overview of the matter. It became really a problem when test proved that the horsemeat had residues of a medicine for horses that is dangerous to humans. This is an issue of food safety and food quality but also an issue of labelling fraud. And of food inflation because a consumer pays for 100% beef while the product contains cheaper horsemeat. One of the problems is that animals and meat get dragged all over Europe in order to be processed. During any of these steps anything can go wrong, unintentionally or intentionally. And just like the milk scandal in Serbia, nobody accepts responsibility but blames ‘the other guy’ in the supply chain. In a globalised world, food producing and processing chains have become long and complex and the driving force is cost cutting. According to management consultants of KPMG there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down. Murphy ’s Law says that if something can go wrong, it will….

Food inflation and labelling fraud is happening all over the world. Fruit juice claiming to be 100% orange has been found to be mixed with other –cheaper- citrus fruits. Ground beef in the US is ‘enhanced’ by adding processed low-grade beef trimmings and other material such as cartilage and connective tissue. It is then treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The stuff has become known as ‘pink slime’, used to be allowed only for animals but can now be used for human consumption (but it is forbidden in Europe). Another additive is ‘meat glue’ that –you guessed it right- keeps meat together. Perhaps these ingredients are on the label, maybe not. But labels have become so complicated anyway and full of jargon that it confuses consumers and keep them in the dark what they are really eating. Big food and biotech companies in the US are trying to keep listing of GMO off food labels although the majority of Americans wants to know if their food contains GMO or not.

The good thing about these food scandals is that it raises consumers’ awareness. This can be used to create windows of opportunity in policy making regarding food safety and quality. Even before these food scandals, people were becoming more aware of what they were eating. Despite the economic crisis, the market for organic food in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands is growing. People have become more aware of additives such as food colouring and ‘taste enhancers’ as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Consumers have a right to food that is safe and healthy to consume and that is of good quality. They have a right to food that is honest and they should be able to rely on labels that convey the right information in a readable format. Primary producers such as farmers have a right to a fair price and not having most of the profit go to intermediary processors, commodity traders and retailers. And consumers are more powerful than they think. By buying local food and certified (organic) food, they can assure themselves that they consume food that has lower chances of having been fiddled around with. SEEDEV’s activities have been in the areas of food quality, good agricultural practices (PDF) and of certification of regional products focusing on improving food production standards.

Ivana gave some recommendations regarding the milk in Serbia. I would like to add that in food production in general, intermediate food processing companies should be held responsible for the food that they ‘outsource’ for processing so they can no longer blame ‘the other guy’. That will make food processors more careful about whom they work with instead of ‘outsourcing’ the processing to shady processors and slick commodity traders.

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