Food Crime: How to Protect Your Company, Consumers and More

Food fraud, intentional adulteration to cause harm and theft can have huge implications on food safety and quality. Protect your company and consumers with knowledge and preparation.

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

It hasn't quite been adapted into a “Law & Order" episode yet[1], but food crime does make the headlines (though not as much as recalls or shortages) — especially if the offenders are salacious or downright dastardly.

For example, there’s the 2009 case of Arnoldo Bazan, a disgruntled employee fired from a Mexican restaurant near Kansas City, Kan., where he worked with his wife. In what could be an episode of your favorite true crime podcast, Bazan, who was upset about being fired and other perceived slights, forced his wife to put pesticide in the restaurant’s complimentary salsa.

“The first day, 24 people got sick immediately, and the next day 36 people got sick,” said Bonnie Stransky, Federal Bureau of Investigation, recounting the story at IAFP 2021 in July. “And it took a long time for them to figure out that it wasn’t something like Listeria or Salmonella.”

The story was covered widely by local news, and the restaurant saw a $250,000 decline in sales the two months after people got sick. Bazan was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. His wife got 87 months.

The case is an example of food defense, said Steven Sklare, president of the Food Safety Academy and co-editor of “Food Fraud,” subtitled “A Global Threat with Public Health and Economic Consequences.”

“With food defense, the individual that is committing an act against the food company is ideologically or personally driven and motivated,” he said. “They might want to harm the company because they have a personal grievance.”

There are three major ways crime can affect food safety: defense, fraud and theft.

While each are different areas that come with their own risks (and therefore mitigation tactics), the central thread running through them is they all threaten the safety of food, said Sklare.

“These different areas come under the same umbrella of food protection,” he said, noting how important it is for food safety and quality assurance professionals to know the difference. “The point is that you want to make sure that you’re focusing on the right issues if you’re going to try to mitigate the risk or the vulnerability.”

We talked to Sklare and other food safety experts about food defense, fraud and theft, why they’re dangerous and what potential lessons can be learned.

Food Defense

While food defense is covered by the Intentional Adulteration (IA) rule in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Jill Hoffman, director of global quality systems and food safety at McCormick & Co., said its focus is mostly weighted toward events where the intent is to cause large scale public harm.

“What we end up having to do is relate it back down to more of these sorts of scenarios with disgruntled employees where that’s not really what the rule is intending to target — these kind of small, more controlled events with disgruntled employees,” she said.

For example, in 2018, My Ut Trinh, a former supervisor at Berrylicious and Berry Obsession farms in Australia was arrested and charged with contaminating cartons of strawberries with pins and sewing needles. At the time of her arrest, CNN reported at least 100 reports of people finding objects in the fruit, and fear of contamination (as well as copycat cases that cropped up) caused the country’s fruit industry to take a revenue nosedive.

“It was a crisis driven by social media and the only real victims were the strawberry growers, and to some extent other Australian fruit growers and exporters,” the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association said in a statement at the time.

Hoffman isn’t sure some of the controls in the IA rule would’ve prevented this from happening in the United States.

“Did that incident fall into the true design of the Intentional Adulteration rule? Probably not, because when you go back to the whole idea of using key activity types, it wouldn’t have fallen within that method,” Hoffman said.

She said it’s important, then, that companies look for the root cause.

“What are the behavioral things that caused this or was the employee reprimanded several times?” Hoffman asked.

To help prevent cases of food defense that might not fall under the IA rule, look at the issue more broadly. Look at scenarios that might cause someone who works for you to do something nefarious. Maybe an employee was recently disciplined for something, or they’re upset about some kind of conflict with a supervisor or co-worker.

“They might not be a terrorist that’s trying to poison your entire water system and harm an entire city,” Hoffman said. “This person is really trying to impact brand reputation and do something just for a quick, direct impact. I think it’s more about how you monitor for those situations in your facility. They’re more behavioral, and they’re usually associated with things like employee conflicts.”

Food Fraud

Food fraud and food defense both share one important trait: They’re both intentional acts.

Although food defense covers the adulteration of food to harm people and/or damage a brand’s standing, food fraud is motivated by economic gain. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

“While they’re actually not intending to harm people,” Sklare said, “they may end up harming people as a consequence. The food fraudster is not concerned with the principles of food safety.”

Food fraud often happens when a company, such as a supplier or manufacturer, uses a cheaper, lower quality or altogether different ingredient than what’s on the label because the actual ingredient might not be available, or they’re trying to save money. They may or may not be aware their company is a victim of food fraud. The problem is that ingredient could be an undeclared allergen.

While you and your company might be above that, issues could arise earlier in the supply chain that affect you.

For example, in 2014, dozens of allergic reactions reported to the FDA were related to cumin that had traces of peanuts and almonds. As part of this, nearly 600,000 pounds of meat contained traces of peanut. The recalls were traced back to suppliers in Turkey, but that doesn’t mean that’s where the contamination happened.

“Some people say it’s still going on where the cumin had been blended with something that had peanut protein in it,” Sklare said. “So, if a company buys that cumin that has some peanut-related item in it, and they create a finished product that goes out to market, they’re on the hook.”

He said that should be motivation enough to institute a food fraud mitigation plan that includes supplier verification and a testing program. Part of that should be understanding what’s going on in the world. If the cumin manufacturer is based somewhere facing drought or other harsh condition, they may not be able to produce the amount of cumin they’re supposed to. They’d then be economically motivated to alter the spice and deliver it.

The pandemic really brought the question of supplier verification into focus as certain parts of the supply chain had trouble keeping up.

“Many companies were forced to change suppliers because they had an international supplier, and that was just cut off,” Sklare said.

That company then searches for a new supplier to keep up with production and might not properly vet that new firm.

It’s also important to understand which parts of the food supply chain, and therefore suppliers, are most susceptible to fraud, including items such as honey and seafood. Rosalee Hellberg, associate professor at Chapman University and a co-editor of “Food Fraud,” subtitled “A Global Threat with Public Health and Economic Consequences,” said there are a few different reasons for why seafood is a commodity that tends to see more fraud.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm of a combination of things,” she said. “You have a complex, international supply chain. Another major factor is that there are so many different fish out there. There are thousands of species, and for a lot of them you have these groups of species that are similar in appearance and taste — and most consumers can’t tell the difference.”

Food Theft

While it often can fly under the radar, food theft can be a big threat to food safety, in addition to a company’s bottom line.

For example, 15,000 cattle were stolen in Northern Ireland during a four-year period that ended in 2020. While the theft causes farmers to lose money, it’s also a public health issue because the location where the animals are then being slaughtered might not meet regulations, said John Keogh, a food industry expert and the founder and managing principal of Shantalla, Inc.

“Anywhere you have the theft of animals, you will have to have clandestine operations in order to process those animals because the legal, authorized entities will be able to identify the animals as stolen very quickly, and they have to follow regulations,” he said, noting that produce are another item often stolen. “Chances are that if they’re unscrupulous enough to steal something, they’re not going to follow regulations either.”

Sklare also said companies need to be on the lookout for items of theirs that might hit the gray market, where items are sold legally, but outside of the brand’s permission.

For example, a company may work with a subcontractor to make 100,000 pounds of a candy bar. But instead, that subcontractor makes 150,000 pounds of that brand’s product using the original wrappers and ingredients. They then ship the 100,000 pounds and sell the rest on the gray market.

“It’s authentic,” Sklare said. “It’s got the same formulation, the same wrappers, but they’ve essentially stolen it from the other company and they’re selling it for their own profit.”

The problem (aside from the theft itself) is that between that point of sale and the candy getting into consumers’ hands, there’s no accounting for how the product was handled. If it’s ready-to-eat, it might not have been kept at the proper temperature. It might not have been properly kept away from potential contaminants. The warehouse it sat in might be rat-infested.

“If it gets out there,” Sklare said, “it’s going to have the original company’s name on it, so it’s going to have an impact on their brand.”

[1] “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” did have one episode, “Death Roe,” that involved a food critic getting poisoned, but the plot quickly went somewhere much darker.

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