10.01.2019

Interview „We Need a Mandatory Testing Regime“

  • Transparency and food safety

Mr Wolfschmidt, how can I, as a consumer, avoid counterfeit food products?
That’s extremely difficult. Most food fraudsters have extensive expertise in food chemistry. Considering the fact that even large laboratories can have difficulty detecting counterfeit products, how can consumers be expected to identify them using only their eyes, nose and mouth?

Yes, but differentiating between dyed sunflower oil and real olive oil doesn’t sound all too difficult.
There was a case like that last year, but the responsible individuals were apparently not very experienced. Counterfeit products that can be identified using our human senses alone are an absolute exception. Usually, it’s only a small percentage of the expensive oil that has been substituted with a cheaper oil. This sort of adulteration, which is nearly impossible to taste and difficult to detect through analysis, can bring the fraudster significant profits if large quantities are produced. In cases like these, fraudsters are not selling a completely different product, but instead simply substituting a small amount. That’s the problem.

Well, at least it’s not hazardous to human health. Isn’t that somewhat reassuring?

Unfortunately, some adulterated products are. Although most fraudsters don’t set out to harm consumers, they also don’t care about product safety. Take, for example, the expensive hazelnut paste that was found to be adulterated with cheap peanuts two years ago. Products like these can pose serious health risks to people with a peanut allergy. Fraudsters have also mixed cheap fusel oils into spirits and liqueurs.

Are you satisfied with the anti-fraud measures that are currently being planned at federal and state levels?
More cooperation between government agencies, the police and tax investigators is certainly a good thing, but it’s not enough. What’s most important is ensuring that products are prevented from reaching the market in the first place. And in order to accomplish this, we need detailed regulations requiring large retail chains to test the products they sell. If they knew they would have to pay high fines for selling counterfeit products, they would implement intensive testing programmes to protect their own interests. Although this would be the most effective means of preventing food fraud, politicians shy away from such measures.

But the large retail chains and manufacturers already invest a lot in monitoring and testing programmes – because every food scandal deals a major blow to their image.

That’s only true to a certain extent – take the horsemeat lasagne scandal of 2013: most of the contaminated ready meals were private-label products from major retailers. However, none of these companies have been held accountable. Another issue is traceability. To date, we still have no idea how many of the eggs that were contaminated with the insecticide fipronil ended up on the market. We also need legislation ensuring complete traceability throughout the food chain.

Let’s talk a bit more about the power of consumers: can’t we make a difference by choosing to buy from small, regional producers?
That sounds too optimistic to me – and it also can’t solve the problem. First of all, food has long since become a global market. Second of all, the designation “regional” is not protected and is therefore unreliable. The providers themselves are allowed to decide what can be called “regional” and what can’t. This is an invitation to fraudsters. In addition, the smaller producers are not necessarily better than the larger ones. There’s no way around it: we need dissuasive legislation governing product liability.

Interview: Thorsten Fuchs

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