Issue #27 2022-02-28
Food fraud (?) in bagels, a too-slow recall, Ukraine-sourced commodity scramble and coriander ice-cream.
Blueberry bagels with no blueberries, an insider’s story
Bagel fraud unpacked - the USA’s misbranding and adulteration laws
Ukraine-sourced food and agricultural supplies, the scramble has begun
Questions about the infant formula Cronobacter recall; why did it take so long?
Just for fun: who eats coriander (cilantro) on ice-cream?
Food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week
Welcome to Issue 27 of The Rotten Apple, the food integrity newsletter for busy people.
This week I’ve got two very different stories from women on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Each of them reached out to me via (professional) social media to express their frustration with food fraud and food safety situations that had impacted them and their loved ones.
One story touches on the grey areas of food law and mis-representation of food in the context of questionable blueberry bagels. The other is an example of how food safety failures in one country can disrupt the lives of vulnerable babies and their parents thousands of miles away.
The big news this week is, of course, in Eastern Europe. For centuries, Ukraine has been called ‘The Breadbasket of Europe’ because of its role as a major food exporter. Food companies are scrambling to secure food supplies that don’t rely on Ukraine sources. I’ve got an example of that below.
Also: Coriander (cilantro), do you love it or hate it? I love it in Asian food. But I wouldn’t eat it on ice-cream. Who would? Read on to find out.
As always, this issue ends with a list of food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week.
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Thanks for reading!
An Insider Reveals Deception in Blueberry Bagels
Earlier this month I talked with Noam Leead a food communicator from Southern California about her experience working for a famous bagel house in 2018. During her time there, Noam experienced deceptive food practices firsthand.
KC: So, you were working for this famous bagel brand in Sacramento as a general hand. For our global audience, can you briefly introduce the brand?
NL: This particular bagel chain is part of one of the largest fast casual restaurant companies in the US. The eateries serve bagels, sandwiches and coffee at more than 100 outlets across the USA.
KC: What was going on with the blueberry bagels when you worked there?
NL: I learned pretty quickly that the blueberry bagels didn't really have blueberries in them at all. The "blueberry bits" are primarily cranberries dipped in juice concentrates, sugar, and oil... yum.
"Blueberry" was just the name, like a flavour, it had nothing to do with the primary ingredients.
NL: And by the way, I learned this from the baker who received the FROZEN bagels every morning as I made "freshly poured" orange juice in the back using a Minute Maid machine [which dispenses juice made from concentrate]. Well... need I say more.
KC: Wow. How did it make you feel to serve a product that wasn't what it should have been?
NL: Well, it didn't make me feel too good, haha. In the back of my head, I kept thinking things like:
What if someone is allergic to cranberries?!?!
… and "I wonder what other legal loopholes they've found"...
NL: In retrospect I felt as though I should've seen it coming from a corporation - I had more knowledge than this "to be fooled" so easily. But studying [food policy] is very different than working it in. Previously I'd only ever been a consumer on the other side of the counter, and as a consumer there's a certain amount of blind trust that we're getting things at face value... but we're not.
KC: How do you think the customers would have felt about the bagels if they had known what you know?
NL: Honestly, I think it would be a mixed bag. Some would be upset, others wouldn't care too much, but probably most would be surprised and then not surprised (kind of like how I felt). Unfortunately some of these deceptive practices have become normalized, and the blame somehow seems to keep falling into the lap of the consumer.
KC: This doesn’t seem like a rouge store manager flouting the rules, it seems like the brand owner had deliberately designed the bagels to not contain real blueberries. Why do you think they were doing that?
NL: Corporate policy.
KC: I guess the company was reducing their costs by not using real blueberries. Is there anything else you remember about your time working there?
NL: At the end of every day there were 50 to 200 bagels left over. That’s a lot of wasted food. There were days a local shelter or charity came to pick them up, but there were many days they were just thrown away. I remember walking to the trash bin with the bagels being unable to dump them. I thought about all the stores across the US throwing away thousands of bagels every day…. Just the sheer amount of waste. Then I threw them in the trash, and quit the next day... Just kidding. Life isn't a movie, but I didn't work there for much longer and I took away a lot of good lessons.
KC: Throwing away food feels awful, doesn’t it? Perhaps one day we will solve the logistical challenges of upcycling foods from restaurants and quick service outlets. As for “Blueberry” bagels that contain no blueberries, hmmmm. Legally that is not a cut-and-dried case of ‘food fraud’. It is certainly unethical, and at least one lawsuit has been lodged over ‘blueberry’ bagels since 2018. More on that below.
KC: Thank you, Noam for your insights. It’s great that your experience has inspired you to write about food waste and food policy, to keep these issues in the public's minds.
Find and follow Noam on Twitter for food, food policy and climate: https://twitter.com/NoamLeead
Disclaimer: This post is based on accounts of past events. The events, occurrences and practices have not been verified. The Rotten Apple makes no allegation that any of these events did occur in the past or are occurring now.
In short: 🍏 A former worker at a famous-brand American bagel house described practices that she felt were misleading, in both the composition of the “blueberry” bagels and the beverages served on site 🍏
Bagel Fraud Unpacked
Is labelling a blueberry-free product ‘blueberry bagel’ food fraud in the USA? The legal situation is not simple.
In the USA, marketing and labelling of foods is covered by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938. Under that act, a blueberry-free ‘blueberry’ bagel could be considered adulterated and possibly misbranded.
Wait what, adulterated? Yup. Adulterated food, as defined in the FD&C is food that is missing certain ingredients, as well as food that contains unapproved substances and unsafe contamination.
“A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if any valuable constituent has been in whole or in part omitted, substituted, damage or inferiority concealed; or substance added to increase its bulk or weight, or make it appear better or of greater value than it is.” (FD&C Act Chapter IV: Food Sec. 342 - Adulterated food – slightly edited for clarity)
Like adulteration, misbranding is also a legal concept in the USA. Under the FD&C Act, food is misbranded if it is offered for sale under a name that is likely to be misleading. And what are blueberry bagels ‘supposed’ to contain? Good question! Some bakery foods have a legally-defined standard of identity in the USA, that sets out what they can or must contain. However there is no standard of identity for blueberry bagels.
It is only misleading to call a bagel that contains no real blueberries a ‘blueberry bagel’ if consumers expect such a product to contain real blueberry fruit. Perhaps consumers expect blueberry bagels to contain only imitation blueberries? And is the situation different if a food business calls their bagels “Blueberry-Flavored”?
As you can see this is a grey area.
Consumer expectations for blueberry bagels were tested in a US court in 2020. A lawsuit was brought against a bagel company by a plaintiff who claimed that the company violated state laws against deceptive business practices by misrepresenting the contents of its blueberry bagels. He claimed he had paid a higher price for the bagels than he would have paid if he knew they contained only traces of actual blueberries. The court agreed that a reasonable consumer would have been misled by the bagels and the case has been referenced several times since in food misbranding lawsuits.
Was the bagel company where Noam worked flouting the intention of the adulteration clauses of the FD&C Act by omitting blueberries from its blueberry bagels? I would argue they were. Did the bagel brand change the composition of its bagels as a result of the lawsuit? I can’t tell; there are no ingredient lists available online. Was the brand damaged by the lawsuit? It seems not. Are such practices still happening today in the US? Almost certainly!
Takeaways: 🍏 In the USA, food fraud-like questions are often tested by private citizens in civil courts. Brands that engage in deceptive practices can be harmed by media attention from such lawsuits, even if the court finds against the complainant, but many such lawsuits don’t seem to result in long term brand damage. 🍏
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Global Supply Chains
Ukraine: The Supply Chain Scramble Has Begun
Most of us know by now, if we didn’t know before, that Ukraine is one of the world’s most important food and agricultural producers and exporters. A country of 40 million people, Ukraine reportedly makes enough food to feed 600 million each year. It’s the biggest European country, by area, and has vast tracts of fertile, arable land that together are larger than the country of Italy.
Ukraine is among the worlds’ top ten countries in wheat, rye, barley and corn production and is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. It’s also one of the world’s largest organic food exporters.
The invasion of Ukraine is going to have enormous impacts on the global food supply landscape.
Food suppliers and manufacturers are already scrambling to secure alternative sources of major commodities. As an example, a member of my network posted this on the weekend:
“Due to what’s going on in Ukraine, we’ve moved our production of SUNFLOWER OIL & RAPESEED OIL to Turkey. So we’ll be shipping from there for the time being.
Updated prices available Monday.”
Brace yourselves, this could get very ugly.
Infant Formula Recall: Pleas from Mothers + Why Did It Take So Long?
A Mum-blogger from the United Kingdom got in touch with me last week, desperately pleading for help with the infant formula recall situation.
She and her network of mothers of babies with special medical needs were panicking because they didn’t know what they were going to feed their babies. Their babies had been prescribed a special formula produced by Abbott. And news had just broken that some brands of Abbott formula were affected by potentially deadly contamination.
If you are a food safety professional you would have already heard about the worldwide recall of some batches of Abbott infant formula. Babies were hospitalised with Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella newport infections, and one died, after consuming formula from a single Abbott manufacturing facility in the USA.
According to one source (FoodSafety Tech), the (US) FDA found ‘adverse observations’ when they inspected the facility. Translation: Adverse observations (probably) = hygiene problems. I wasn’t able to verify these inspection results directly from the FDA. The same source also claimed that the company had previously destroyed product that contained Cronobacter.
It sounds like they had a known Cronobacter problem in that facility. In its own statement about the recall, the company reported they had isolated Cronobacter sakazakii from non-product contact areas but had not found it in any product from the recalled batches.
What I want to know is, why did it take so long to initiate a recall? The first illness was in September last year. That’s more than five months ago. Sure, it takes time to link the illnesses to a single product, then to a single facility. Of course it takes time to investigate the facility. But this is a deadly situation for an extremely vulnerable population who rely on the formula for all their nutritional needs. Five months is too long. And even one sick baby is one too many.
The UK mums were horrified that their local authorities did not initially act on the news from overseas and the formula remained on the shelves in their country, and available on eBay UK, for many days after other countries had initiated recalls. Their paediatricians and pharmacists couldn’t or wouldn’t prescribe or supply alternative formulas for their babies.
They were left wondering if their only choice was to feed their already-unwell babies potentially deadly contaminated formula or nothing at all. How horrible for them. I’m pleased to report that they have since found alternatives and a recall is now underway in their country.
But why did it take so long to get this potentially deadly product off the shelves?
In short: 🍏 More than five months after the first illness, infant formula made in a US facility has been recalled across the globe. 🍏 The formula has been linked to Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella newport infections. Cronobacter sakazakii was found in the facility. 🍏
Read a quick primer on Cronobacter in Issue #17 of The Rotten Apple.
(Not Really) a Food Crime
Coriander (cilantro) ice cream sundaes; yes for reals
And now for something a little cheerier or grosser - you decide!
The herb coriander, or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), has a divisive flavour. You either love it or you hate it.
If you hate it you might have one of two genetic variations in aroma-sensing genes or taste genes. The most common of the two genetic variations cause a subsection of the human population to be particularly sensitive to aldehyde molecules and might be the reason some people experience an unpleasant soapy taste when they eat coriander.
Even coriander lovers might struggle with the concept of a coriander-topped sundae, which was launched recently by McDonalds China. Twitter users describe the dessert as “limey”, "minty” and “ice-y” flavoured. It certainly has fabulous visual impact. I’m not sure I could eat a whole one though.
https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2012.11398 (the genetics of coriander preferences)
Food Fraud Incidents and Horizon Scanning
Food fraud incidents added to Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week
A prominent food fraud researcher reported that a UK food company found plastic rice in a shipment they purchased from a European outlet, with the plastic being present at about 10%, although this was not able to be independently verified - United Kingdom
Rice containing residues of an illegal pesticide has been identified - United Kingdom
A baby food manufacturer has been accused of making false claims about its products. The claims are that the products are lead-free and contain no heavy metals, but tests did find traces of heavy metals - United States
Chilli powder adulterated with corn flour and unauthorised red colourants was seized from a manufacturer or packing house - India
Food fraud horizon scanning (other updates to the Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week)
A prominent food fraud researcher claims there are increasing quality issues in rice in the United Kingdom and that some of these can be traced to fraudulent business practices or supply chain integrity issues. The claims include that a UK food company found plastic rice in a shipment they purchased from a European outlet, with the plastic being present at about 10%. Also that samples his organisation are testing have much higher levels of broken rice then previously. He also alleges that there may be a higher risk of aflatoxins in rice from certain countries that supply rice more cheaply than India. His lab has found residues of an illegal pesticide known as Carbendazim in rice samples - United Kingdom 24/02/2022
See you next week!
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