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Posted 30/08/2022

Food Fraud: A New Risk for Plant-Based Foods?

Food Fraud: A New Risk for Plant-Based Foods?

Karen Constable, Principal Consultant at Food Fraud Advisors and Founder of The Rotten Apple shares what she learnt about a new food fraud vulnerability. 

“You’ve all heard of the melamine in baby milk scandal, right? Three hundred thousand babies had their kidneys injured in China because greedy people added melamine to the milk powder used by baby formula companies.

Why melamine?  Because it is rich in nitrogen, and the nitrogen content of milk is often used to estimate its protein content.  More nitrogen equals more “protein” equals higher prices… the added melamine increased the selling price of the milk.

The scale of the Chinese scandal was enormous, and it took the food safety community by surprise.  But there were warning signs. And there was a deadly precedent.  

The year before the baby milk scandal, American investigators discovered melamine had been fraudulently added to plant proteins after thousands of pets died from eating contaminated pet foods.  Wheat gluten and rice proteins from China used in cat and dog foods had been adulterated with melamine.  Why?  To boost their apparent protein content.

As a consequence, by the time the baby milk problems came to light, it was already known that toxic melamine was an adulterant used by fraudsters to ‘trick’ protein tests.  If only someone had warned the world about protein-melamine fraud before all those babies got sick!  What a horrible, preventable tragedy. 

The Chinese tragedy happened in 2008, at a time when awareness of food fraud was much less prevalent than today.  There was no one in a position to issue a warning about melamine in milk powder or in pet food a decade ago.  

Now the marvellous Chris Elliott, granddaddy of modern food fraud prevention initiatives, writer of the highly regarded Elliott report on the European horsemeat scandal and founder of the world-leading Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University Belfast, has issued a new warning: Melamine-like substances in plant proteins are an emerging food fraud (and food safety) risk.

Elliott says the risk can be attributed to:

(a) the ‘soaring’ prices of plant proteins due to increasing demand for plant-based foods and supply shortfalls from crop failures;

(b) the form of the proteins when sold to plant-based-protein-food manufacturers: pale-coloured powders, which can easily ‘hide’ adulterants;

(c) the purchasing criteria: protein content is a key driver of price. 

There are tests to detect melamine contamination.  Unfortunately, Professor Elliott says there are more than sixty other widely-available, low-cost materials that could be used to fraudulently increase the nitrogen content of plant powders, in addition to melamine. That’s sixty other materials that could evade the melamine tests!  He also suggests that the supply chains of alternative proteins are alarmingly opaque.

This is not good news.

When Chris Elliott warns the food industry about a looming food fraud risk, we’d better sit up and pay attention.  The risk is credible and the consequences are potentially deadly.  If you work with plant proteins or plant-based foods, beware!”

This post originally appeared in Issue #15 of The Rotten Apple – news delivered differently for the global food safety community

By Authentic Food And Food Fraud Advisors

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