Consumers in China are angry because their donkey meat doesn’t contain enough…donkey. Wal-Mart this week recalled “Five Spice” donkey meat sold at some outlets in China after tests revealed that the product contained the DNA of other animals. Donkey is a popular snack in parts of China—the country slaughtered 2.4 million of the animals in 2011–but cheap fox meat, which has been found in some of the donkey snacks, is decidedly not.
Wal-Mart, which will reimburse customers who bought the tainted meat, will likely take a hit in China, where it has plans to open more than 100 stores over the next few years. But the company—which is cooperating with the government to investigate its Chinese supplier—is hardly alone in selling meat that is actually something very different. Food fraud is a major challenge in China and around the world, as suppliers secretly substitute cheaper meats for more expensive and popular varieties—with consumers none the wiser. By some estimates, food fraud can cost the global food industry over $10 to $15 billion a year, and the U.K. Food Standards Agency has estimated that 10% of the food we buy off the shelf may be adulterated. Some of the stomach-churning scandals from last year:
- Last January, horse DNA was found in a number of hamburgers for sale in Britain and Ireland, with one sample burger tested by Irish authorities turning out to be 29% horse. That touched off a multi-month scandal in Europe, as additional tests found horse DNA in about 5% of beef samples across the region. Tens of millions of burgers and beef products across Europe were withdrawn, although it’s still not clear whether suppliers knowingly used cheaper horse meat to adulterate their beef, or whether the contamination happened by accident.
- Last May Chinese authorities arrested nearly 1,000 people for “meat-related offenses,” including a gang that made millions of dollars passing off fox, mink and rat meat as more expensive lamb. Another group of suspects produced fake beef and lamb jerky from duck.
- Last February, the environmental non-profit group Oceana tested fish taken from around the U.S. and found that about a third of the samples were mislabeled. Between one-fifth to more than one-third of the supposed halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass samples were something other than what they were said to be, with cheaper fish replacing more expensive varieties. Only seven of the 120 samples advertised as red snapper were actually red snapper.
Food fraud isn’t new. The ancients Romans used to produce fraudulent wine and olive oil, and anyone who read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle—which featured scenes of men falling into meat vats and being sent out as lard—will remember just how sloppy and unscrupulous meat producers were before reforms like the Pure Food and Drug Act. But the nature of the global food industry, with its geographically distributed supply chain, means that the opportunities for fraud are on the rise. The high price of products like beef and especially seafood makes secretly swapping in cheaper substitutes more profitable—so much so that international criminal gangs have gotten into the food fraud business.
The answer is tougher regulation of the food industry, though given the fact that products like ground beef can include ingredients from dozens of separate suppliers means that any crackdown will be challenging. Although many countries impose only commercial fines for food fraud, a British government study released last month recommended that food sellers should be held criminally liable if they sell mislabeled meat. Technology could help as well, by allowing ingredients to be traced back to the source, with data from the entire food chain kept in the cloud. But given how low-margin much of the food business is, retailers might be reluctant to pay for traceability—especially if they can simply plead ignorance when something goes wrong.
So what should you do to ensure that the meat you paid for is actually the meat you get? Going big or going local can help—large national chains like Whole Foods have had fewer issues with seafood fraud than smaller grocery chains, while farmer’s markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture) ensures that you actually know the farmer raising your meat. Fish that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or other sustainability programs is likely to be what it advertises itself as—and to be better for the environment. And of course, there’s always the vegetarian option. You won’t end up eating horse meat accidentally if you just give up meat altogether. Unless of course you’re in mainland China, in which case all bets are off.