Three experts explain what food fraud in Canada means, and how to best recognize it.
When I head to the grocery store for my usual weekly shop, I take for granted that what I’m buying is, in fact, what it claims to be.
Putting groceries into my cart, I assume the wild salmon I’m planning to make for dinner is actually wild, and that my extra-virgin olive oil is 100 percent pure. But what if it’s not?
You may have heard of food fraud—or even experienced it yourself—but what you might not know is that food fraud does happen in Canada and can be a serious cause for concern, impacting the health and safety of unsuspecting consumers. “[Food fraud] is the intentional misrepresentation of a product,” says Michi Furuya Chang, senior vice president, public policy and regulatory affairs at Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada.
“Whether that deception is through product adulteration, substitution of an ingredient, omission of an ingredient on an ingredient line [or] dilution of the product in some way—any of that, when it’s deliberate, is considered fraud.”
And fraud extends to false, misleading and deceptive labelling or advertising claims that are made about the product as well. Product adulteration and substitution occur when items are bulked up with less expensive ingredients, like olive oil that’s been diluted with sunflower or canola oil, or honey that has had corn syrup added. Deceptive labelling happens when false claims are made on packaging—such as farmed salmon that is labelled wild, for example, or if something is listed as “organic” but it hasn’t been produced following required organic guidelines.
“Fish [fraud] is very common, usually by mislabelling, because people don’t actually know that much about fish as a general rule,” says Janet Music, professor and research program coordinator at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
“When fish is just a fillet in a package, the average consumer wouldn’t be able to look at it and say, ‘that’s cod, or that’s pollock, or that’s perch.’” According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), other commonly frauded foods in Canada include honey, spices, olive oil and other expensive oils, like coconut oil and grapeseed oil.
In the CFIA’s Food Fraud Annual Report for 2020 to 2021, which was released in spring of 2022, 525 targeted samples of commodities most susceptible to fraudulent activity were tested for authenticity. Honey, fish, olive oil and spice samples all received rates between 87 and 93 percent satisfactory for authenticity, while samples tested in the “other expensive oils” category were deemed 66 percent satisfactory for authenticity, with the biggest incidence of fraud in that category found in coconut oil.
Product adulteration and substitution occur when items are bulked up with less expensive ingredients, such as olive oil that’s been diluted with sunflower or canola oil, or honey that has had corn syrup added.
“Four out of the five commodities that CFIA looked at actually came back with results above the 87 percent threshold; that [is deemed] quite high. So I would say that Canada continues to be recognized as having, overall, one of the safest food systems in the world,” Chang says. She notes, however, that there’s still room for improvement, especially with ongoing global supply chain challenges we’ve been experiencing since the pandemic.
“We have heard that some food fraud did increase during the pandemic and, also, extended beyond food; there have been reports of some fraudulent hand sanitizers, for example,” says Chang. “My understanding is that [the CFIA will] be continuing to identify risk and pressure points for possible fraud all along the supply chain.”
Preventing fraud during the production phase is key, because on the consumer side, it’s often impossible to know if what you’ve purchased is fraudulent. This is especially concerning for those with food allergies and sensitivities.
“For people with allergies, food fraud could be deadly. For example, the substitution of peanut oil for olive oil is really concerning,” says Maria Corradini, the Arrell Chair in Food Quality at the University of Guelph. “It’s not just people with allergies who are at risk—if a product is diluted with water and it’s not potable or drinking water, the culprits might be incorporating pathogenic microorganisms that could cause an outbreak. So this kind of food fraud can be a direct threat to the health of consumers.”
Despite how difficult it is to know whether you’ve bought the real deal, there are some practical precautions consumers can take to ensure authenticity.
“Always buy your food from a trusted supplier. The vast majority of us buy our food from major retailers with a very safe food supply chain,” Music says. “But if you buy something online, or you’re getting something from a smaller shop that you’re not familiar with, you’re increasing your risk of potentially purchasing fraudulent food.
” With certain products, you can go one step further by buying a whole item, such as an entire fish, rather than just a fillet; this makes it easier to identify and trace the source. Buying certain ingredients directly from local farmers or producers, like honey that’s sold by a local beekeeper, for example, is likely safe, too.
“If you can get something directly from the source and see the supply chain, then you’re well on your way,” Music says. If you do suspect something you’ve purchased is fraudulent, Music says it’s important to let the retailer you bought it from know. You can also report suspected food fraud and related concerns online through the CFIA. Music also notes that if something seems too good to be true, that’s probably because it is.
“If something says that it comes directly from the hills of Italy, but it’s very inexpensive and you can’t believe your luck, then your instinct is likely right.”
“We all have to use our common sense when it comes to the things we’re buying.”