Emily Chow is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Over the past decade, the media has published several scandals about the quality and safety of the food we eat – from horsemeat found in Tesco beef burger patties to shark and seafood fraud. It is estimated that the counterfeit food industry is worth $49bn a year.
Beyond obvious consumer protection issues, market transparency, and misinformation, fraudulent foodstuffs exacerbate the risks facing endangered species. Researchers found that an estimated 15% of Mediterranean swordfish sold by Italian fishers were substituted with less valuable, yet nevertheless endangered species of shark. Inaccurate labelling makes it difficult to track and identify what animals are at risk due to human activity; this is especially concerning given that sharks and rays are among the world’s most endangered species. There are plenty of other examples of highly substituted foods. One study found king scallops sold in Germany were replaced with the less valued Japanese species in 48% of samples. Another found prawn balls on sale in Singapore made entirely out of pork.
Difficult conservation policy decisions, already limited in funding, can be more effective when comprehensive data is available to inform such decisions. Oceana, whose mandate is to protect Earth’s oceans, notes how food fraud hinders conservation efforts and international fishing treaties by increasing the profitability of destructive fishing practices, undermining consumer-driven conservation efforts, and harming large-scale conservation initiatives such as quotas and restrictions.
Interestingly, food products are not the only counterfeit organic item on the market.
In 2016, Walmart and Target refused to purchase any more bed linens from textile giant Welspun. An internal investigation revealed that approximately 750,000 Welspun “Egyptian cotton” sheets did not contain cotton from Egypt at all, a direct contradiction of Welspun’s appeal and promises of quality. Welspun’s intricate network of cotton suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers made sourcing the error difficult. Whether it was a mistake in labelling or a deliberate act of fraud, a globalized supply chain makes it difficult for consumers and producers alike to confirm the authenticity of an item. Luckily for Welspun, a New Zealand company called Oritain was up to the task. In 2017, they announced a partnership that would allow Oritain to validate Welspun’s supply chain of home textile products.
In an interview with The Guardian, Oritain’s co-founder Russel Frew discussed his past life as a researcher at the University of Otago. A geochemist, Frew utilized a mass spectrometer often, which allowed him to determine the precise atomic makeup of water and soil samples gathered from across the world: a unique elemental signature for a given area. Applied to products, Oritain describes its method as “using ‘fingerprints’ derived from the chemical compositions of plants and animals … [that] vary naturally throughout the environment.”
Atoms of a particular element can have different amounts of neutrons—neutral particles that do not contain an electric charge—residing within each atom’s nucleus, resulting in various isotopes. Oritain determines the relative ratios of isotopes within a sample to ascertain its origin. For instance, a sample’s oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 ratio changes according to temperature, altitude, and precipitation, whereas ratios of carbon-13 to carbon-12 vary based on soil conditions, animal diet, and farming practice. Oritain also analyzes trace elements in building a sample’s characteristic signature. These can include sodium and iron derived from the composition of soils, water, and feeds. In addition to sourcing the origins of fabrics and textiles, Oritain has partnered with various food suppliers to combat food fraud.
The expansion of verification and traceability programs may lead to the detangling of fish nets and supply chains around the globe.
Oritain Certification: oritain.com/about/our-certification/
“What is Mass Spectrometry?” by the Broad Institute: www.broadinstitute.org/technology-areas/what-mass-spectrometry#:~:text=Mass%20spectrometry%20is%20an%20analytical,the%20sample%20components%20as%20well.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s survey to verify the authenticity of honey samples: inspection.canada.ca/food-safety-for-industry/food-specific-requirements-and-guidance/honey/notice-to-industry/eng/1557532467247/1557532467487
“Food Fraud in Canada” published by the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph: arrellfoodinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/UG_Arrell-Foods_09_Food-Fraud_Final-2.pdf