Issue #44 2022-06-27
Another mystery outbreak, the trouble with “fake” foods - sourdough and Italian foods, LEDs made from pickles
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Another Mystery Outbreak of Acute Poisoning in the USA
“Fake” sourdough bread, and…
“Fake” Italian food… (food fraud or not?)
Just for fun; light-emitting pickles
Food fraud incidents from the past week
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In this issue you can read about another mystery food-borne illness outbreak in the USA. It’s not breakfast cereal this time, but a plant-based protein "crumble”. The FDA doesn’t know - or won’t say - the cause of the illnesses. And people are getting really sick, with the symptoms of severe liver disease and trips to hospital emergency departments being reported.
Also this week, an update on the latest research about the COVID virus in food supply chains. Plus the tricky topic of “fake” Italian foods and “fake” sourdough: one person’s “scandal” is another person’s non-issue.
As always, food fraud incidents we’ve added to our database in the past week can be found at the end.
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Cover image: Tim Cooper on Unsplash
Another Mystery Outbreak of Acute Poisoning in the USA
It was a disaster waiting to happen.
The food safety community has been expressing concerns about the food safety status of direct-to-consumer food companies for years.
Earlier this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization published its Future of Food Safety Report, which included a chapter on the risks posed by changing consumer consumption patterns. But shockingly, it barely mentioned the growing risks from food brands that sell only online and do not sell their food into traditional channels. These are known as “direct-to-consumer” food companies.
Why the concern?
Direct-to-consumer food companies are typically subject to significantly less oversight than traditional food manufacturers who sell to large supermarket chains or to restaurant chains. This is because supermarket companies and restaurant chains have valuable brands which they need to protect from food safety scandals and – importantly – the large chains also have significant food safety expertise in-house.
Food safety experts understand that it only takes a few mistakes in mass production to make people really sick. And dead. So the food safety experts at big food retail outlets - the Marks and Spencers, Walmarts and McDonalds of the world - make sure their companies source food products and ingredients from manufacturers that have properly designed and implemented food safety programs. And they check up on those suppliers regularly.
Direct-to-consumer food manufacturers don’t get inspected or audited by their customers the way traditional manufacturers do. Their customers are ordinary consumers, who can’t conduct food safety audits on their suppliers. And shouldn’t have to!
Of course, there are government rules and regulatory inspections that are supposed to ensure all commercial food makers do the right thing, but in some countries – I’m looking at you, United States - those inspections are so infrequent, or incompetent, that the system sometimes appears essentially useless.
Right now, American social media is BLOWING UP over hundreds of reports of severe illness caused, according to victims, by food purchased from a company called Daily Harvest.
Daily Harvest is a direct-to-consumer food brand.
Victims are reporting crippling gastrointestinal pain that requires emergency medical interventions including gall bladder removal and symptoms of sudden-onset liver disease.
This is bad.
To add insult to injury, the company has treated its customers like crap. Daily Harvest, because of their sales model, has the ability to directly contact every single one of their customers by email. So whatdaya reckon they did when they received multiple complaints of serious illness from people who had consumed their French Lentil + Leek Crumbles?
Nothing good, at least to begin with. According to outraged customers who posted on Reddit on Wednesday and Thursday last week, the company went quiet on social media and then, after a delay of more than two weeks, emailed consumers suggesting that they had undercooked the food. Daily Harvest’s main marketing channels are social media posts and social media influencers, so the silence was striking.
“I had these crumbles and was in the worst pain of my life for over two days. Still exhausted and cramping. Have not had a single response from DH, neither through email or chat.” Redditor FaithlessnessSorry44 on Reddit, 21st June
In their first email communication with customers, Daily Harvest asked everyone to immediately discard all the product (food outbreak investigators are shaking their heads) and requested they fill out a survey explaining how they had cooked the food at home, managing to imply that any illnesses were caused by consumers not handling the food correctly.
“A small number of customers have reported gastrointestinal discomfort after consuming our French Lentil + Leek Crumbles,” the email said. “As included in our cooking instructions, lentils must be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.” Daily Harvest’s email to customers, via NBC.
Gastrointestinal discomfort? That’s a nice way to describe multiple people ending up in hospital.
Victims are reporting severe, debilitating abdominal pain, fever, dizziness, fatigue and “liver problems”, as measured by abnormal enzyme levels and characterised by dark urine, fever, and extreme itching.
It gets worse! One Reddit user claims that Daily Harvest retrospectively changed their order records so that it looks like they never bought the offending items.
“… another slimy thing they did is that on the app, under my past orders, they deleted the crumbles right out of the cart !!!! luckily i still have the emails with the exact dates and inventory of each order and proof i received 2 bags of the crumbles” Reddit user Illustrious_Luck_948, 22nd June 2022.
Curiously, some consumers insist that other Daily Harvest foods such as flatbreads and smoothies are also causing symptoms, in addition to the lentil dish that was first named as the problem food.
What’s the cause?
Speculation on the internet suggests that amatoxin, which is found in poisonous mushrooms, or aflatoxin (mould toxin) could be to blame. Undercooked lentils contain a cocktail of natural toxins that can cause severe reactions, so that is also a possible source of the symptoms.
The brand owner says that they are doing extensive testing for pathogens and toxins but all their results have been negative to date (as of 22nd June).
What is being done?
A recall of the lentil dish has been initiated and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has collected samples and information from consumers. Social media users seem impressed with the transparency, speed and thoroughness of the FDA investigations so far. The same can’t be said for Daily Harvest.
“First trying to destroy the evidence with the only bolded instructions in their email to throw the food away immediately. Social media has been crickets for days, and now worst of all, trying to form a case that we all cooked them improperly” Reddit user Eprell, 22nd June 2022.
Watch a TikTok influencer describe her experience:
The FAO Future of Food Safety Report: https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cb8667en
Reddit (=social media) threads where people describe symptoms and praise the efforts of the FDA:
Mainstream media report:
Official response from Daily Harvest:
A consumer tells her story to Food Safety News
In short: 🍏 Food has been recalled after severe illnesses were reported in the USA 🍏 The cause of the illnesses is unknown - US FDA and the company have not discovered (or revealed) the reason for the illnesses at the time of writing 🍏
Food Fraud or Not? The Trouble with “Fakes” (Italian food and Sourdough Bread)
Usually, when something “fishy” occurs there’s no difficulty in deciding whether it is - or is not - actually food fraud. For example, if someone sells pangasius fish fillets but tells their customers it is cod, then that’s food fraud. Simple!
But every now and then, I discover reports of “food fraud” that don’t seem quite right.
The academic world has been arguing for years about how to define food fraud. I’m happy to leave them to it. The definition I use is…
Food fraud occurs when food or drink is sold in a way that deliberately misleads or deceives consumers or customers for financial gain.
(This is derived from the definition published by John Spink, Douglas Moyer and Cheri Speier-Pero (2016) in the peer-reviewed journal Food Control)
Sourdough or “Sour-faux”?
What is authentic sourdough bread? And if a bread that is labelled “sourdough” doesn’t meet certain standards of authenticity are consumers actually misled?
A food and farming group in the United Kingdom has accused supermarkets of misleading consumers by labelling breads that contain ingredients including palm oil and commercial yeast as “sourdough”.
Is this a food fraud? Well, it’s complicated. Thinking back to my definition of food fraud… If the supermarkets are deliberately misleading consumers then I would argue ‘yes’ it’s food fraud. But I’m not sure that anyone has been deceived, given that the ingredients of the sourdough are disclosed.
The complainants say that authentic sourdough must be made only with flour, salt and water. But do consumers agree? Perhaps consumers want sourdough from a supermarket to have a certain flavour and texture but don’t care much about what it’s made from?
There is no legal definition for sourdough in the United Kingdom. This means it would be up to the legal system to decide, on a case-by-case basis if the breads are misleading to consumers or not. If misleading, then it’s food fraud. If not misleading, then it’s not food fraud. It’s tricky!
In a similar situation, “Blueberry” bagels that don’t contain blueberries have been tested in courts in the United States under similar circumstances. You can read about that in Issue #27 of The Rotten Apple.
Italian Fakes or Italian-style Foods?
In many countries, parmesan cheese is a style of cheese that has a low moisture content, a hard texture and a strong flavour, but does not necessarily come from Italy. But in Europe, it is a PDO food, a food with a Protected Designated Origin. And that means you can’t call a cheese “parmesan” unless it meets the rules for provenance and production methods, at least not in Europe.
But if you buy parmesan cheese that doesn’t meet the PDO rules, is it “fake”? And is that food fraud? Well, it depends….
Last week, an Italian industry association sent out a press release claiming that more than two-thirds of Italian foods worldwide are fake. To be specific, many foods that they say are purported to be Italian, instead have no production or employment links to Italy.
They claim that products with names like parmesan cheese and Parma ham are “fake” if they are not genuine examples of – for example - Parmigiano Reggiano, or fully compliant with European rules that legally define “Parma ham”. Other products they accuse of being fake include mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, and Chianti wine.
Brand names that imply “Italian-ness” for products made elsewhere, such as Pompeian-brand olive oil (made in California) are also accused of being misleading. But are they?
Again, it's complicated.
In Europe, the rules for these Italian products are relatively clear-cut, and they are being actively enforced. European Union border authorities seized three times more “fake” Italian products last year, compared to previous years. But in countries outside Europe, the legal status of foods like mozzarella is much more muddy.
The answer? It’s all about the context. If local rules for food definitions and food labeling are being broken then that’s absolutely a problem. If not, then the question comes back to whether the products are misleading. And that’s tricky!
In short: 🍏 Food frauds and food “fakes” can be context-dependent 🍏 Food fraud definitions usually require a form of deception or misleading of consumers 🍏 Deciding whether food marketing is misleading is not easy and it is often left up to courts to decide on a case-by-case basis 🍏 Some foods, such as non-Italian-sourced parmesan cheese, are considered fraudulent or illegal in some markets but are legally acceptable in others 🍏
Spink, et. al. (2016) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956713516301219
Just for Fun
Turn a pickle into an LED
Every food factory seems to be converting its old light fittings to LED luminaires. It makes sense, LEDs are much more energy-efficient than traditional lighting technology, making them cheaper to run.
LEDs – light-emitting diodes – don’t produce light the way that old-fashioned incandescent bulbs do. Instead, they work by emitting photons that are released when the electrons inside the atoms of a semiconductor change state in response to an electric current.
In an LED light the semiconductors are various complex chemicals. But a pickle can be made to behave in a similar way to the semiconductors in LEDs.
When you run an electrical current through a pickle, the sodium atoms from the salt in the pickle become “excited”. As they return to their usual unexcited state, they emit a photon. The wavelength of the resulting light is characteristic of spectra emitted by sodium, which produces yellow-coloured light.
Apparently, if you soak your pickle in other chemicals you can get it to glow in other colours too, according to this source:
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