Fake foods rife in South Africa

Nowadays you can buy practically any item of clothing or any electronic recording or perfume on counterfeit markets all over the world.

South Africa is no exception and vendors at a flea market a few blocks from our home, sell ‘Gucci’ handbags and ‘Prada’ shoes without batting an eyelid.

It is evident that modern society has become inured to buying non-authentic or illegal goods, some of which such as counterfeit medications, are really frightening.

But most of us are still under the impression that our food is sacrosanct and that we would immediately be able to detect any ingredient or product that is not the ‘real thing’. If you believe that, you are living in Never-Never Land.

Read: Foods that are faked and how it's done

Nothing is safe!

I don’t shock easily, but a recent article published in the fst magazine (the official magazine of the South African Association of Food Science and Technology or SAAFoST), has shattered my confidence in food authenticity.

The article by Wendy Dias, Market Development and Product Manager of Synchron Marketing who specialises in Brand Protection and High Security, about ‘Counterfeit Food’ made me sit up and realise that the latest scam is food counterfeiting.

Dias writes that the Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) has estimated that up to 7% of global trade consists of counterfeit goods.

In South Africa, the counterfeit market was estimated to be costing our economy R360 billion back in 2011 when Adams & Adams did a survey for our local producers.

According to Dias, only about 3% of goods entering Durban harbour, our main port of entry for imports, are scrutinised by customs which means that South Africa is probably extremely vulnerable to the threat of global food counterfeiting.

So nothing is safe anymore in this cosy global village we live in where even the food on our plates may be counterfeit.

Table: Examples of common foods that are adulterated and what is used instead of the real thing - See more and search at Foodfraud.org

food scams
Counterfeiters are making mega-dollars

Interpol has warned that food counterfeiting has become the target of international syndicates because “it is as - if not more - lucrative than drug, organ and human trafficking, and it carries less risk.”(Dias, 2014).

This is a scary thought because it impacts each and every one of us. The risks to the consumer are serious because if drug lords are prepared to dilute or ‘cut’ illegal drugs with rat poison, what will food counterfeiters not stoop to when it comes to making their trade even more lucrative.

Examples of counterfeit foods

Most people may remember the ‘Milk scandal’ in 2008, when milk products purchased from China were adulterated with melamine (a type of plastic) to boost the protein content and also the ‘Sibutramine scandals’ of 2010.

The latter scandals erupted when a number of over-the-counter (OTC) herbal slimming pills which were being advertised as “natural” and “safe”, produced amazing slimming results, but made many users seriously ill. On testing it was found that the herbal concoctions had been laced with sibutramine, a chemical that promotes weightloss.

Read: The dodgy ingredients in slimming pills

But sibutramine had already been withdraw from the pharmaceutical slimming pill market because it was linked to serious cardiovascular side-effects including high blood pressure, irregular heart beats (arrhythmias), angina and strokes.

The South African distributors of the ‘sibutramine-laced’ herbal slimming pills blamed their suppliers in the East, and pleaded ignorance.

It was interesting to note that when they relaunched their products without the sibutramine, the products no longer produced miraculous weightloss!

Read: SA withdraws sibutramine

Foods most vulnerable to counterfeiting Dias (2014) 

 foods with a long shelf-life and a long supply chain which makes tracking down the point of counterfeiting difficult, such as oil and honey.
 orange juice, coffee, saffron and milk are also prime targets
 fresh foods including meat, as we know from our local meat scandals (‘Horse or Wors?’) and fish

What are the solutions?

Reputable food manufacturers are trying to safeguard their branded products with the use of innovative ideas such as OVDs (Optical Variable Devices), which have been used on bank notes throughout the world for a long time.

Dias (2014) defines an OVD as “an iridescent image that exhibits various optical effects such as movement or colour changes.” OVDs cannot be photocopied or scanned and they can’t be reproduced.

They are also very attractive and transmit the message to the customer that the product he or she has purchased is safe and genuine.

Dias (2014), recommends OVDs as a method which food manufacturers can use to communicate with their clients that the food they are eating is not counterfeited.

Image: Example of how holographic security elements can be applied for product and brand protection - by 3DAG Holographic Solutions

Back in the day I was worried when we did not wash fruit thoroughly, now I will have to look for a hologram on the apples I have for lunch before I dare to eat them.

It is a sad day for humanity when greed contaminates every facet of our lives including the food we and our children eat.

Read more:

Food labelling legislation - will it help consumers?
Large South African retailers caught tampering with food labels
Beware herbal products that contain unlisted products
Food expiration labels misleading

Around the web

Fake beef, eggs, rice and recycled buns in China 
AntiCounterfit in New Zealand
Hong Kong researchers develop indelible ink to combat counterfeiting

DIETDOC© Text copyright: Dr I V van Heerden      
References: (Dias W (2014).Counterfeit food. fst Magazine, August 2014:39-41)
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