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What is food crime and how does it affect you?

Food fraud takes place in more ways than you think.

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Portrettbilde av Patrick Berg Sørdahl
Blogger
Portrettbilde av Silje Elde
Silje Elde

Scientist
Phone: +47 976 01 988
silje.elde@nofima.no

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Portrettbilde av Marianne Svorken
Marianne Svorken

Scientist
Phone: +47 922 94 946
marianne.svorken@nofima.no

07Imagine you’re standing at the fish counter and want to buy some fish for dinner. You may be concerned that the fish you buy should come from sustainable fisheries and so you look for products that have an environmental certification label. Perhaps you also want the product you buy to be processed in Norway and to contain minimal additives, so you read the label carefully.

While you might not think so much about it there and then, you probably want those who have caught the fish and those who have processed it to have been paid what they are entitled to. But can you trust that all these things are in place?

Can you count on someone claiming that the fish is sustainably caught, that it doesn’t contain additives, or that the workers who have processed it are not employed on slave contracts?

Food crime in Norway

Not everything might be as it seems in the seafood industry and there may be a lot hidden beneath the surface.

Fraud can take place in all parts of a fish’s journey from fjord to table, be it on the quayside, in the restaurant or in the grocery store. There are many ways in which fraud takes place and the fraudsters can be very creative. One species can be replaced with another, fish might not be recorded when coming ashore, products get injected with water to increase their weight, or farmed fish might be sold as being caught in the wild.

Seafood is by no means alone when it comes to food fraud. This is a problem that concerns pretty much all types of food and beverage products, from meat, spices and coffee, to wine and many other products.

In other words, if there is money to be made, then criminals aren’t far behind. And food, especially seafood, is ‘big business’.

Some may think that these are problems that only occur abroad and never here in Norway, where we are completely safe. Even though things are very well organized here compared to other countries, our research shows that the problem still occurs in Norway. Just like you can rely on the winter cod coming home to spawn along our northern coasts, you can also expect there to be violations of the law in the fishing industry.

Now, some of you might react a little bit when reading this. Maybe because some might feel that all fishermen and fish buyers are being tarred with the same brush, but you can relax.

Fortunately, the vast majority of fishermen and fish buyers are law-abiding people who follow the rules – but as usual, there are a few that ruin it for everyone else. Others may react because they weren’t aware of the problem and now regret all the fish dinners they have eaten. These people can also relax. Fortunately, not all food fraud causes health risks, far from it. Although you might risk consuming something when you don’t know what it is or where it comes from, for example, if one species is disguised as another, it is not a widespread problem in Norway. The product labelling surveys carried out in Norway show that despite some discrepancies regarding ingredient lists, quantity and nutritional declaration, as well as cases of misleading labelling, only a few of these discrepancies may pose a health hazard.

Whose problem is it?

The majority of fraud that takes place in the Norwegian seafood industry takes place during the primary stage, between fishermen and fish buyers. For example, this could include fish that are thrown over board, catches that are not completely reported, or that fishermen and fish buyers collaborate regarding price.

This is a type of fraud that neither poses a health hazard nor affects you directly as a consumer. However, it does have an impact on society as a whole.

Fish that are caught at sea without being reported can lead to overfishing, and illegal collaboration regarding price means that some gain an unfair competitive advantage, for example. This is obviously very serious, but nothing that affects you in your daily life. So, it is important to distinguish between problems that affect society and problems that affect individual consumers.

It is difficult to say with certainty how much fraud actually takes place in the Norwegian seafood industry, but there is no doubt that the problem exists. When the food we eat is involved in fraud, it damages the trust that consumers place in the food industry. It doesn’t matter whether it takes place on the quayside when the fish are landed, or in the restaurant. When you are standing at the fish counter, you expect product information to be truthful. You expect that you won’t get sick by eating it, and that you are not unwittingly supporting social dumping, for example. There is also another dimension regarding this breach of trust in the fishing industry: fishermen are in the privileged position of reaping a common resource, and the least the community expects is that they follow laws and regulations.

How long does a scandal last?

No one likes to be fooled, and news about fraud often gets a lot of attention, but how much does it really affect us? How big is this breach of trust?

It is said that old habits die hard, and this is definitely the case when it comes to food. Many of us buy things on instinct and we often buy the same products. Unfortunately, we also have bad memories. In other words, the horror we felt when we heard about some scandal soon disappears as time goes by

Therefore, the consequences in the long run for companies and individuals that commit fraud are not as serious as they should be.

Can consumer power be used?

Could a possible solution to the problem be that we, when in the store, become better at punishing those who are doing something wrong by avoiding certain products? Should we make more of an effort at reading labels and reacting if we see something suspicious?

Some people believe that consumers should be more aware about the food they buy, learn more about the correct taste, consistency and smell, and also pay more attention to when certain foods are in season and if they are suspiciously cheap, for example. It may well be that pressure on the food industry would increase if we all became our own ‘food detective’ when we shopped. However, there are two problems with this.

Firstly, our awareness is limited. As a result of globalization, the world has become increasingly smaller, including the world of food, and we now have access to food from all corners of the world. At the same time, our purchasing power has increased and an increasing proportion of the population can afford to buy healthier, more protein-rich and more exotic foods. This means that Norwegian meals don’t just include local fish and potatoes any more, but may also contain meat from Argentina, spices from India and fruits and vegetables from Spain. Our refrigerators are packed with all sorts of different food products, and we can’t expect to know everything about every single product that we buy in our local area.

Secondly, it is also very difficult to know who should actually be punished. Globalization and the widespread trading of food across borders have also resulted in products having changed hands many times before it ends up on your plate. This makes it very difficult to track the product. This also makes it very difficult to find out exactly who has done something wrong. If you buy a food product that proves not to be what you thought it was, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who sold it is the guilty party. They may have bought the product in good faith from someone else, who in turn got it from someone else, and so on.

Take responsibility!

Two main bodies are responsible regarding food fraud prevention. The authorities need to develop regulations and a monitoring system that are efficient and finely-meshed so that criminals are caught. On the other hand, they mustn’t be a spanner in the works for the seafood and food industries. However, the industries must be better at following requirements such as labelling, as well as dealing with outdated negative cultures. That which is actually fraud in reality, is viewed by some in the seafood industry as being far less serious. Instead of calling it by its proper name, people use words such as “cheating” or “trickery”, and many see it as “taking a shortcut” or even “getting a bargain”. These attitudes should be confronted and a strong sense of internal justice in needed. Again, even though most people stay within the regulations, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.

As consumers, it’s simply not true that we are totally powerless and can’t do anything to prevent ourselves from being fooled. Look for locally produced food and read the label carefully. And don’t forget that Norwegian seafood is both healthy, tasty and above all, safe to eat. Enjoy your meal.

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