Are you sure you are selling what you say you are?

Posted on Analysis Aug 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Are you sure you are selling what you say you are?

In a climate of fast-rising prices, Pat Chapman of the Curry Club examines food fraud and the penalties for the culprits.

With UK annual food product inflation approaching 10% – the highest since records began in 1986 according to the Office for National Statistics, bakers are faced with imported wheat prices surging by almost 47% in less than a year; we hear it is now more profitable for Afghan farmers to grow wheat in preference to poppies for heroin. Despite the costs, London restaurant chain Tiffinbites, recently switched to free range corn-fed chicken at a cost of £150,000 a year. CEO and founder Jamal Hirani says the move is in direct response to the plight of battery-farmed chickens costing £2 whereas a free-range bird costs £10. Hirani is a rare bird indeed, because with cheap food is being passed off as top-quality produce in a vast UK fraud costing shoppers £7bn a year, he’ll need to trust his suppliers. 

Even the mighty Tesco aren’t above it. Using DNA testing to establish food origins, the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) found in 2007 that Tesco was selling expensive ‘corn-fed’ chicken that were actually raised on a cheaper diet. Tesco blamed ‘a farmer’s accidental mistake’. Tesco aren’t alone; the FSA also prosecuted Sainsbury’s and Harrods for selling cheap farmed fish as wild and Mitchells & Butler, whose vast restaurant chain includes Vintage Inns, O’Neills, All Bar One and Browns for making misleading claims about the origins of its ingredients and dishes in some outlets; for example ‘buffalo mozzarella’ turned out to be a cheaper full-fat cow’s cheese, which the company blamed on ‘an administrative error’.

According to consumer group Which?, as much as 10% of food sold through high street grocers, supermarkets, school canteens and leading restaurants is subject to sharp practices. Battery farm eggs are passed off as free range which are 80% more expensive, farmed fish is sold as wild which costs 40% more, ordinary virgin oil is dyed dark green with chlorophyll to make it look like extra virgin while inferior meat is labelled as organic. Price rises and the organic scam also involves cheap vegetables, orange juice, cheeses and arabica coffee beans and closer to curry home, Basmati rice. Thailand, which is by far the world’s largest rice exporter, trebled rice prices in the first three months of 2008 to over $1000 per ton, an increase of 147% from a year earlier and everyone else followed suit; in a bid to avoid food scarcities in their own countries, major rice exporters imposed export bans, taxes or minimum ceilings. In the Philippines, the world’s largest rice importer, the government warned that anyone hoarding rice could be charged with economic sabotage, which carries a life sentence, policed by armed soldiers who supervise rice distribution.

Experts say rice prices are rising because of a mix of irrational panic, increased rice consumption, a global shortage, weather problems – typhoons in the Philippines, cyclones in Bangladesh and Burma, flooding in Indonesia and Vietnam – and a reduction in the amount of land dedicated to rice farming. The Philippines for one has shot itself in the foot by developing some former rice paddies for housing and golf courses, and planting more lucrative crops on others. The US is one of the world’s top rice growers, although Americans don’t consume much of their own grain.

Between 40 and 50% is exported. Ironically their imported rice is so much in demand that retail chain Wal-Mart announced that customers will no longer be allowed to purchase more than four bags of jasmine, basmati and long-grain white rice per visit, “effective immediately” across all of its US stores.Basmati (from the Hindi word for fragrant) is the name for certain varieties of rice grown exclusively in the plains of northern India and Pakistan.

It has a characteristic aroma in both the raw and cooked state, and a distinctive shape, which on cooking elongates to almost double its length whilst its width remains the same and it slowly releases carbohydrates (i.e. it has a low glycaemic index compared with other rice). These attributes enable Basmati to attain double the price of non-Basmati rice and so it is a victim of fraud.

Adulteration of Basmati rice with conventional (cheaper) long-grain rice has become a recent international phenomenon, to the annoyance of the Indian and Pakistani governments. They want the Basmati name given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status as is French champagne, Welsh lamb and Cheddar Cheese. However such protection is confined to European products and the problem has become exacerbated with recent EU legislation which states that only 40% Basmati is required in each pack. In 2003 an FSA study DNA-tested 363 samples and revealed that brand names selling ‘Pure’ (100%) Basmati, included Tilda, Kohinor, Veetee, Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose. Packs labled ‘Basmati’ (and omitting the word ‘pure’) are like as not adulterated with cheaper non-Basmati rice and priced at well under half that of ‘Pure’ brands. 46 % of the survey were so treated, 17% of which contained over 20% including the Coop and Somerfield own labels, and 9% contained more than 60% non-Basmati including Chand Kernal, Daily Fresh, Lily, Salaam, Delat, Abbey, Khalis, Habib, Tenery, Tolly Boy and 3663 (the UK catering supplier). A follow-up survey in 2006 found 16 per cent of samples were still being adulterated.

The FSA is empowered to check all the ingredients and if found inaccurate, they can prosecute restaurants. So be safe, be sure your menu says what it means and means what it says. If you use adjectives like organic, corn fed, free-range, wild, free-from and so on, make sure you deliver. If you don’t your customers may never know, but the FSA will.

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