Food fraud: Mexican alcohol edition

To my four Canadian daughters: Pay attention.

Tourists to all-inclusive resorts in Mexico suspect they were given tainted alcohol.

Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes the scene at the swim-up bar at the Mexican resort where Abbey Conner was pulled listless from the pool in January was full of young tourists last month when an attorney hired by Conner’s family showed up.

It wasn’t surprising. It was a typical scene at an all-inclusive five-star resort where foreigners from both sides of the equator flock to escape their cold winters.

But as he watched, the attorney noticed something disturbing.

“They serve alcoholic drinks with alcohol of bad quality and in great amounts, mixing different types of drinks,” he wrote in his native Spanish.

That single paragraph, buried near the end of a four-page report summarizing how 20-year-old Conner drowned within a couple hours of arriving at the Iberostar Hotel & Resorts’ Paraiso del Mar, offers a possible lead in the investigation into her death.

And it could shed light on the circumstances surrounding numerous reports from others who have told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they experienced sickness, blackouts and injuries after drinking at Iberostar and other resorts around Cancun and Playa del Carmen in recent months.

A Pewaukee family traveled to an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen in January. Their two college kids wound up unconscious, face down in the pool within two hours. Twenty-year-old Abbey died.

They told the Journal Sentinel they believe they were drugged or the alcohol may have been tainted. They questioned how they could fall into a stupor so quickly. And whether they had been targeted.

Not the Sopranos: Police in Europe break up network selling illegal horse meat

Raphael Minder of The New York Times reports police in Europe have dismantled a criminal network that was selling horse meat across the Continent that was “not suitable for consumption,” arresting 66 people as part of a four-year investigation prompted by the discovery in Ireland of horse meat in burgers sold as beef.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said on Sunday that all but one of the arrests had been made in Spain. But the Spanish police said in a separate statement that their part of the investigation had accounted for “a small portion of a network stretching across the whole of Europe, under the control of a Dutch citizen.”

The Dutch citizen, who has not been publicly identified and was taken into custody in April in Belgium, was described in a Europol statement as the leader of a criminal gang that had acquired horses on the Iberian Peninsula that were judged to be “in bad shape, too old or simply labeled as ‘not suitable for consumption.’ ”

The animals’ meat was processed and sent to Belgium, one of the European Union’s biggest exporters of horse meat, and the criminal organization modified the animals’ microchips and documentation to facilitate the fraudulent export, the statement said.

The Pan-European investigation began after a scandal over horse meat in burgers in Ireland in 2013, and it was widened to other European countries as dishes like frozen lasagna labeled as containing beef were found to have horse meat.

In addition to the arrests, the Spanish police said on Sunday that they had seized property and luxury cars, and that they had frozen bank accounts. The police in Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland also carried out interventions, according to Europol, although the statement did not provide details.

Food fraud: Brazil bored bureaucrat mob-influenced version

Federal authorities announced Friday they’re investigating evidence that companies including JBS SA and BRF SA, the nation’s largest meat producers, bribed government officials to approve the sale and export of soiled meat. Federal police served hundreds of court orders, including more than 30 detention warrants, in what local media says is the largest police operation in the country’s history.

Police released transcripts of recorded conversations showing how agricultural inspectors were bribed, sometimes in the form of prime cuts of beef. It’s alleged that some of the meat, including sausages and cold cuts, was adulterated with ingredients including pig heads, and that suspect smells were masked by applying acid. Inspectors who refused to comply, it’s alleged, were reassigned elsewhere by the meat companies.

“It seems like magic realism,” Marcos Josegrei da Silva, the judge responsible for overseeing the so-called Weak Flesh investigation, said in a court order. “Unfortunately, it is not.”

In a statement, the Brazilian unit of Wal-Mart said it fully trusts its internal food safety procedures.

But should consumers?

The story trickled around the globe over the weekend and is now like a Brisbane downpour.

Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said Saturday Brazil fears that it may lose foreign markets for its agricultural products.

The minister confirmed earlier media reports that the United States, the European Union and China have already requested Brazilian authorities to launch an investigation against the unscrupulous meat producers. However, none of these countries has so far announced that it was closing its market for animal products from Brazil.

On Friday, Brazil’s federal police arrested members of a major criminal group involved in trade of tainted food, mostly meat. According to police, the operation involved almost 1,100 police officers and became the country’s largest ever. The operation targeted major Brazilian meat producers selling their products both domestically and internationally.

Investigators detained a number of meat industry employees, who are suspected of bribing agriculture watchdogs to receive quality certificates for low-quality goods without proper checks. Some of those money were reportedly used to finance political parties.

Police says that the suspects also used acid and other chemicals to make the rotten meat appear fresh.

The Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment has stated it is taking the issue seriously and will investigate if spoiled meat has been brought to Finland.

In Finland, Brazilian meat has been sold in stores belonging to S Group.

Canadians trafficking $16,000 of Nutella

Josh Hafner of USA Today reports Toronto-area police announced Friday that they had arrested suspects tied to a trafficking ring of drugs, stolen cars and a truckload of the rich, hazelnutty goodness that is Nutella.

nutella“Yes, I said Nutella,” confirmed Det. Sgt. Paul LaSalle, per the Toronto Star.

An elaborate sting dubbed “Project Cyclone” resulted in York Regional Police divvying 137 charges between 23 suspects, the Star reported, including 60-year-old Balwinder Dhaliwal – the so-called “King of Car Thieves” once profiled on the History channel’s Mastermind series.

In the process, police recovered stolen goods totaling roughly 3.75 million U.S. dollars, including 60 vehicles, $149,000 worth of loose cash and assorted amounts of heroin and cocaine. Also found: a trailer chock-full of that creamy spread of the gods, Nutella.

LaSalle said he wasn’t surprised by the stash of chocolatey breakfast bliss, which amounted to about $16,300 in U.S. currency.

 “I’ve never seen an investigation that did spiral into so many directions,” he said, according to the Star.

A spike in car thefts led to the investigation beginning in 2015, around the time that a new body shop named Benefit Motors opened in the nearby suburb of Vaughan.

Police grew suspicious of the business and eventually tracked two luxury cars to the shop that were left running in the same driveway to warm up, YorkRegion.com reported.

Police said the thieves targeted mostly luxury cars from brands such as Lamborghini, Maserati and Porsche. Once stolen, the thieves made fake papers for them and changed their identification numbers before reselling them, authorities explained.

“If someone in the criminal world wanted a cheap and nice ride, they came to see the Dhaliwals,” LaSalle said, according to the Star.

Unloading the filched Nutella proved a less complicated affair: Thieves sold the jars of nutty blessedness for about half their market value, YorkRegion.com reported.

Food fraud: UK unit may get more powers

The UK National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) should be given additional powers and resources to boost its ability to tackle food crime and protect consumers, a review has recommended.

horse-food-fraud-simpsonsCarried out by officials from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) under the oversight of an independent steering group, the findings are to be considered by the FSA Board at its next meeting on Wednesday 23 November.

The NFCU was set up in 2014 in the wake of the horsemeat incident, when beef was supplemented by cheaper horsemeat in a large-scale fraud across Europe. It was agreed that a review of the NFCU would take place after two years.

This follows implementation of the first phase of the unit’s work which has involved building the intelligence and evidence picture of the risks and the nature of food fraud and food crime in the UK.

The review recommends that the NFCU is made an arms-length body of the FSA, with investigatory powers, providing the agility and freedom to make day-to-day law enforcement decisions.  Currently, the unit has no investigatory powers and instead works with partners including local authorities and the police to tackle food crime.

If the FSA Board accepts the review’s recommendation, the next stage is to develop a business case and consult with other government departments on more detailed delivery options. There will also need to be in depth consultation with devolved governments and stakeholders in Wales and Northern Ireland, to ensure that a future NFCU takes into account devolved enforcement arrangements and the need for local political accountability. This further work would be completed by the end of March 2017.

Food fraud, China-style, on preserved meats

Daniel Zhou of the South China Morning Post reports a Shaanxi meat factory has been fined 5,000 yuan (HK$5,850) for incorrectly labelling ingredients on its preserved meat products that contained extra injected water and food additives, a mainland newspaper reported, but the finished products passed quality tests despite an official describing the factory as the “worst” he had seen.

chinese-hunan-preserved-pork-sausageThe meat from the factory in Xian, labelled “Hunan Preserved Meat”, is softer and brighter than most similar preserved meats due to the extra water and food additives injected during the production, a former worker in the factory surnamed Zhang told the Chinese Business View.

Zhang said the director bought water injection machines and instructed workers to increase the additives, including sodium tripolyphosphate, carrageenan and starch. The additives helped preserve more water in the curing process, greatly increasing the yield.

The allegations were reported to the food and drug administration in Xian in July and officials paid a surprise visit to the factory for an unannounced inspection on July 13.

The meat factory, which lacked a proper sign on its front door, was operating in a Xian industrial zone with its door locked and when the officials arrived it took more than 10 minutes for anybody to come to the door.

Food service workers in Mass. will be retrained after bogus certificates surface

Keith Eddings of the Eagle-Tribune writes the U.S. National Restaurant Association on Friday agreed to train without charge about 170 employees at bodegas, restaurants and other food-service establishments in the city who received certificates in safe food handling from a consultant accused of selling bogus documents for as much as $450.

jesus_nobody_fucksThe association also said it suspended the consultant, Jorge De Jesus, whom it had hired to teach the courses and administer the exams needed to receive a so-called ServSafe certificate from the association.

De Jesus also was suspended with pay from his $51,602-a-year job as a code inspector for the city’s Inspectional Services department after a bogus ServSafe certificate found at Noelia Market on Lawrence Street was traced to him. The city shut the bodega last week. 

The certificates are issued by the association, not the city, but the city requires them from merchants seeking the common victualler license needed to sell food. That made it a conflict of interest for De Jesus to issue even valid certificates in Lawrence, Assistant City Attorney Brian Corrigan said.

Food fakery: The grill mark game

Continuing in the theme of all the bullshit food consumers will readily consume, Dan Mitchell of The New Food Economy writes a major American food company is planning a new, frozen sandwich product, the bread of which will sport fake grill marks, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked to remain anonymous and that neither the company nor the particular product be identified. “Gross,” this person concluded.

grill.machineWhen it hits the stores in the coming months, the product will join a long line of foodstuffs that have been gussied up to look like they’ve been cooked by traditional means, as opposed to being radically processed.

The most famous is probably the McRib sandwich, McDonald’s perennial attempt to alarm and dismay American diners, and to provide fodder to hacky comedians (and, sure, hacky food-business reporters). The McRib was designed to look not only as if it had been grilled, but also to look as if it were ribs. Actually, it’s just “restructured,” low-grade pig meat, processed and seasoned into arguable palatability and molded into a shape sort of resembling ribs. This fools people about as effectively as those goofy flame decals fool people into thinking the cars bearing them are speeding down the highway do.

Food fakery is everywhere. What might be somewhat surprising is that it continues despite the food industry’s fevered attempts to appeal to millennials, with their supposed preference for “authenticity” and revulsion for both processed foods and the giant corporations that make them.

chicken.thingies.raw“Char-marking is a big business,” Fast Company reported 10 years ago in an article describing how big poultry processors like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride create the appearance of grilled chicken for most of the major fast-food chains. Those companies and others run hundreds of huge production lines that, besides processing chicken beyond all recognition, incorporate large machines that add the grill marks. An executive for one of the companies that make those machines told Fast Company matter-of-factly that they create “the appearance that the product may have been cooked on a backyard grill.”

Sadly, the chicken sandwiches from Burger King, KFC, and Subway don’t come anywhere near tasting like they’d been cooked on a backyard grill. How could they, when the processing involves submerging chicken parts in something called a “tumble marinator,” where all kinds of non-chicken ingredients are added for preservation and flavor enhancement, and then baked with jets of hot air before having fake grill marks emblazoned onto them?

chicken.thingies.raw.cookThe equipment used for char-marking seems like it could be easily repurposed to produce drywall or ball bearings. The Stein CM II, made by JBT FoodTech, is an imposing piece of business, a hulking Industrial Age behemoth that the company promises works for “a variety of protein substrates.” (In other words, meats.)

A California company, Heat and Control, makes a product called the Rotary Brander that, among other features, allows operators to adjust the “branding color.” In 2011, BakingBusiness.com reported that the company had rejiggered the Rotary Brander to work on tortillas as well as on meats and vegetables. A company executive boasted at the time that its offering would “help processors expand their product offerings beyond traditional tortillas and tap into new markets.” Heat and Control’s product line, he added, helps to “give products distinctive and appetizing surface finishes.”

raw.chicken.thingies.outbreakThe article ends there, but here’s where it should continue: Consumers have to read really, really close to figure out if those frozen thingies with the fake grill marks were fully cooked and then frozen, or if they are raw, frozen and need to be fully cooked, as verified by a tip-sensitive digital thermometer.

The U.S. has been taking baby steps at distinction for about a decade, but in Australia, a consumer would have no idea.

I pointed this out to one of the food safety types at the biggest supermarket in Australia years ago.

Nothing has changed.

There have been outbreaks.

And in interviews, the sick people said, I thought they were cooked.

Fakery has its price.

 

Food fraud: Canadian greenhouse edition

Ann Hui of the Globe and Mail reports that a few years ago, federal food inspectors were walking around the warehouses of the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto – the nerve centre where much of the province’s fresh produce is bought, re-packaged and sold – when they noticed something unusual.

emersonIn the “farmer’s market” area, where only Ontario-grown produce is meant to be sold, the inspectors saw large cartons of greenhouse peppers with conflicting labels. The outside of the boxes had “Product of Canada” stickers, next to visible signs of damage on the cardboard – bits of paper and glue, as if another sticker had been peeled off. And stickers on the inside of the box read “Product of Mexico.”

That discovery in January, 2012, led the Canadian Food Inspection Agency into a three-year investigation of the company behind the peppers, Mucci Farms – the largest such probe in the agency’s history.

After executing three search warrants at the company’s headquarters in Kingsville, Ont., and poring over its computer records and internal e-mails, CFIA investigators pieced together evidence that, between late 2011 and early 2013, Mucci had been selling imported products as Canadian – putting hundreds of shipments of mislabelled produce worth more than $1.4-million onto Ontario grocery store shelves.

In one e-mail described in a court document and obtained by The Globe and Mail, one of the company’s directors, Danny Mucci, responded to a message from an employee about a shortage of Canadian mini cucumbers by telling the worker: “you know what to do to fill…it’s only 30 cases.”

Mucci International Marketing Inc., Mucci Pac Ltd. and two of its directors (Mr. Mucci and Joseph Spano) pleaded guilty in June of this year to eight regulatory offences – including one count against the company for selling food in a “false, misleading or deceptive” manner – and were fined $1.5-million.

Mucci’s lawyer, Patrick Ducharme, said in an interview that the mislabelling was not intentional, and that, given the volume of Mucci’s 1,200-employee operation, the transactions made up “a very small part of what they do.” He also emphasized that they pleaded guilty to regulatory offences, not criminal ones. Criminal charges against Mucci International and Mucci Pac and the two directors of defrauding the public, and defrauding Costco, Loblaw and Sobeys – to whom Mucci sold the produce – were withdrawn.

The case sent shockwaves through the country’s agriculture industry, and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers called it a “unique” precedent. “My hope is that it’s an isolated case,” the marketing board’s manager, Rick Seguin, said in an interview.

If the best you can do is hope, then OGVG is in for trouble.

I helped – or did – set up the OGVG on-farm food safety program way back when OFFS wasn’t cool – about 1998.

We got a couple of papers out of it, along with reams of anectodes and observations and every time I’ve blogged about them, the new types at OGVG have threatened to sue (that’s a pic, upper left, of my 14-monty-old grandon #2, Emerson, instead of tomatoes; sue that).

I’m used to that.

And since I’m just a lowly former academic, the legal types tell me, you can’t afford it.

So I’ll let CFIA and the Globe run with it.

powell_greenhouseI had nothing to do with it.

Can only sit back and sigh.

For years, experts have been sounding the alarm on mislabelling and food fraud. Increasingly, they say, criminal organizations around the world are targeting the food system, intercepting supply chains and deliberately misrepresenting or adulterating products – and costing the food industry between $10-billion and $15-billion (U.S.) each year, according to the U.S.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association.

And, according to conversations with experts in the Canadian food industry, scientists and regulators, the problem is widespread within our own borders.

But even the CFIA does not seem to know just how widespread it is. Individual cases provide an incomplete picture. And the 74 cases of non-compliance with labelling laws from the past year published on the CFIA website – a number the agency say has held steady over the past five years – present only a portion of incidents where the agency has found companies breaking the rules. It includes only the cases in which the products were actually seized and detained or disposed of, but also includes technical infractions, like language or font size on packaging.

When asked how prevalent the problem is in Canada, the agency cited U.S. data that show fraud affects about 10 per cent of all food products globally. It also acknowledged it has not yet conducted a widespread survey of its own to understand its full impact within Canada.

In his years as a lawyer representing companies in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting cases in Canada, Lorne Lipkus has seen cases of food fraud ranging from counterfeit basmati rice (knockoffs of a high-end brand) to fake ginseng.

“You’d think: ‘How expensive is it to grow a bag of rice,’” he said. “But if someone’s making something and making a profit out of it, somebody’s counterfeiting it. … Everything we do in Canada is reactive. We have very poor laws, compared to other countries. And we haven’t had any government involved in the longest time – I’m talking decades – willing to provide the resources to law enforcement to do anything about counterfeiting.”

In EU countries, border officials have the authority to seize and destroy goods they believe are counterfeit. In Canada, customs officials can detain a product, but it is then incumbent on the complainant to undertake court action and to pay for the goods to remain in detention until the case is heard – which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Most alarming, he said, is that the scope of the problem is not understood because no agency is specifically looking for fraud.

On the issue of mislabelling, experts also point to policy initiatives abroad – such as a U.S. proposal to require companies to have food fraud prevention programs – as evidence others seem to take the issue more seriously.

Although the CFIA has not conducted a full survey of the issue in Canada, James Crawford, acting associate vice-president of operations with the federal agency, said CFIA receives about 40 complaints a year about possible food misrepresentation.

In an interview, Mr. Crawford said the agency takes food fraud seriously. He also said Canadians are generally safe from adulterated food – pointing to a Conference Board of Canada study in 2014 that ranked the country’s food system as the safest of 17 OECD countries surveyed.

Stop.

That was a bullshit survey with criteria based on nothing.

On fraud, he said, “we’re proactive and reactive.”

He said CFIA staff conduct regular inspections of imported and domestic food – including daily inspections at meat processing plants. Still, he was not able to say what percentage of products undergoes such scrutiny for labelling.

“We can’t inspect every … import or domestically produced food in Canada. It’s impossible. That’s why we have a risk-based plan. And it allows us to focus on where we think the high risks are.” Some of the things the agency takes into account in prioritizing inspections include food type and likelihood for illness, and each company’s track record of compliance.

Even countries with the most aggressive approaches faced the reality that food fraud is not easily confined by borders.

In Canada, much of the action on the issue has been industry-led. Large retailers in Canada like Loblaw or Costco have programs to safeguard against adulterations, requiring suppliers to subscribe to standardized food safety programs, and undergo annual audits.

Stop.

Audits and inspections are largely shit.

As for Mucci, it is on a three-year probation during which CFIA inspectors will have free access to its premises and computer records. Mr. Ducharme says the company is doing everything it can to ensure accuracy of its labelling, including appointing a compliance officer and reviewing all of its processes.

He believes the CFIA targeted Mucci in part to set an example. “I don’t think it’s insignificant that the place that was targeted for the big investigation was the biggest in the industry,” he said. “They know Mucci’s the biggest. The best.”

Uh-huh.